Jumping through time, we fast forward a year to further festivity…
Monday, December 23rd
It’s 6.45 am and I’m standing in the kitchen making porridge. Outside all is dark, and Leo is yet to stir – such a good sleeper that I’ve learnt to hide his talent for slumber from other, less fortunate parents than I. There but for the grace of God…
Mum is away, celebrating Christmas early with her partner, leaving me to make the Monday morning run to the childminder before a dash to the West End for a last day at work before the holiday. She’ll return on Christmas Eve, in time to be with Leo for Christmas Day. Any sense of iniquity I’m harbouring is countered by the fact that Leo and I will have been together now for five out of seven nights by this evening. Still and all, ’tis the night before that’s best, and I ponder Christmas futures. Christmases when Leo will awaken to the magic, and awaken to the fact that dad is elsewhere.
Mission accomplished, and much of the rest of the day is given over to budgetary deliberations. To spend or not? An austerity Christmas, or one final fling with the plastic to ease myself through the season before battening down the hatches and sealing the wallet in the new year? Given that I’ve recently learnt I’m to emerge from six years of joint property ownership with the smallest four-figure sum imaginable, a period of retrenchment inevitably beckons with its bony finger.
And yet, it’s Christmas. It’s the season to be entirely illogical in regard to one’s finances. One look around me is all I need for a quick reminder of that. Town has emptied out somewhat, thousands fleeing from London’s lead grey skies. Inclement weather incoming. But those left on the good ship are making a scrum of it, scurrying from shop to shop like the recession never happened. Who am I not to join in the fray?
In the full and certain knowledge that I face a second successive gift-less Christmas, I cave in to self-pity and, in the nauseating and infantilising advertising argot of the day, decide to ‘treat myself’, splurging on a bottle of Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon (it’s no longer Christmas in this brave new dawn without The Pogues at Brixton and a sour mash whiskey) and a copy of Charles Schulz’s Complete Peanuts 1967-1968 – the year of its zenith, I’m assured. Added to Leo’s pile is a cuddly ‘Enormous Crocodile’, copyright the estate of Roald Dahl. Not especially enormous, or even particularly crocodiley. Retrenchment can wait.
Make the dash back south to Leo’s nan in increasingly hostile atmospheric conditions, skies apocalyptic. By 8.00 Leo is drifting off on my chest, hearing for the first time how the Grinch stole Christmas. It’s warm in here with him, and outside the wind is whipping around the flat, licking at the door and generating the near-hysterical whistling you’re more familiar with from films. Inside, the reassuring rumble of the boiler and soft whistle of Leo’s exhaling breath. Kiss his hair before laying him down between Eep-Eep and Morgan Jr. The day couldn’t end any better.
By lunchtime I’ve ferried Leo to his nan’s, and spend the rest of the afternoon facing the madness of Christmas crowds. At 23 minutes to five I’m missing him fiercely, but have at least got the shopping in under the wire. I’ve opted to have myself a Merry LIDL Christmas, and join the bazaar to toss smoked salmon, pistachios and the like into the basket for half the price.
But with the shops closed, the deadline met and the door shut behind me, the hush descends and the harder it gets. From here on in it’s all about the anticipation and the kid within me stirs – but no playmate. The problem is that I love Christmas – and if you love it, you can’t ignore it. My Christmases have evolved down the years into a ritualistic observance of traditions old and new – the obligatory pilgrimage to, and weep over, It’s A Wonderful Life, the Pogues gig, Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart, the over-indulgence on Christmas Eve and the price paid in the morning. To those indifferent, I imagine it must be quite easy to ignore. But tonight the ghost of an alternate Christmas haunts – a Christmas from a parallel life, a Christmas with a family. And again, the ghost of Christmas future – Leo’s stocking prepped elsewhere… Periodically I remind myself that I don’t have to wrap his presents tonight, that I won’t actually see him tomorrow save for a conversation on Skype.
The flat may be empty, but the fridge at least is unusually full, and sleep comes easy. Waking up will be the hard part…
Stepping out of the bath tub after a long soak with a glass of bourbon and half a packet of Quality Street (toffees and fudge only – finally, the prayers of those who eschew the soft centre have been answered) I reach for the iPhone by the bed. Just a reflex, I suppose, as I’m unsure who I might possibly be expecting a message from at this late hour. I see we’re seventeen minutes into Christmas Day already. Impossible as it is to ignore, right now it’s snow quiet and not a creature is stirring, but there’s no sense of anticipation, just a quiet dread that I swallow back down at intervals. Dry off and slip between the covers.
Hours later I’m staring at the curtains. Christmas Day is fingering its way around the edges. Resistance is futile, and I swing my legs over the edge of the bed. Traditional breakfast – bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon to the accompaniment of 6music. A picture of Leo is texted over – brimming with festive glee… Then, the Skype call – mum and dad avoiding eye contact (though it’s curiously hard to look away without seeming rude or distracted on a video call…) – but soon Leo is on hand, kissing the screen in between circuits of the room, filling it with a joyful racket. For Leo, every day is Christmas… For me, he’s far away, so close…
After a hasty lunch, to Highbury Corner – I’ve volunteered to help out at a temporary shelter for the homeless run by the Quakers. Wheeling north up bus lanes without buses, weaving through tourists on Boris Bikes, I’m still unsure as to what’s motivating me, or what I may be hoping to get out of the day. This is a first for me – I confess I’m not the type to volunteer ordinarily, and could hardly even classify myself as being charitably inclined. Indeed I’ve even on occasion suspected that a great deal of charity is about the feelings of the giver rather than the benefit of the recipient.
The inescapable truth is that I have nothing to do on Christmas Day. My son is with my ex, family are outside of London and in no circumstances would I consider throwing myself at the mercy of friends, who are en famille to a man. Rather than act the Christmas gooseberry, I’m intent on turning the situation around and focusing on someone else. On the final approach along Upper Street I realise I’m afraid, and now I know why. Without a family home and with barely a penny to show for it, I’m living in a flat I could conceivably lose at any point, and with an annual income of less than £25,000 and considerable debt face the prospect of housing myself and my son in London, where the private rental market is tearing strips off of couples and families. Paranoia? I hope so, but on the days that chew at me days homelessness can loom in the rear view mirror.
Hours at the kitchen sink with Gill help me overcome my nerves. She’s a cheery and determined middle-aged divorcee who’s maintained a close friendship with her ex. I’m all ears. We cope with the brunt of a hundred-plus Christmas dinners, occasionally mingling with those we’re here to serve. There are the alcoholics and habitual drug-users, and the victims of life-derailing childhoods. There are men accompanied by dogs who’ve offered them more solace than any human. Some seem haunted by the men they might have been. One man sits hunched throughout, intent on a copy of Economics Explained. I wonder whether he’s asking how he got her or looking for the way out. I hope he finds enlightenment.
At five o’clock I’m sent on a mercy mission – with forty quid in my pocket I’m dispatched to find two carving knives. I haven’t the heart to question the likelihood of finding a pair of knives on Upper Street on Christmas Day so gamely set off with the hopes of all resting on me. Make it as far as the 24-hour Co-op garage where my request has a carful of patrolling policemen in stitches. On hearing the dilemma, they suggest sharpening the knives we have blade-to-blade, cliche French chef-style. I sprint back and we make like Boy Scouts. Christmas is saved.
The workload hits a critical mass after dinner and though I flag, my spirits are high and I realise I’ve made the right choice in coming along. I may have set out to do something for myself – ie distract myself from a Leo-less Christmas – but in doing so I’ve given of myself, putting my shoulder to the wheel for the benefit of others. And it feels good. All around is cheery chaos, only the dogs are fighting. Merry Christmas, we wish each other over hot chocolate.
At the debrief we’re invited to finish in silent prayer. It’s then I realise that I’m the only non-Quaker in the room and as their eyes close or meet the floor, I allow my faithless gaze to study for a moment the faces I’ve been working with. Good souls, all. No piety or sense of self-satisfaction. No-one has asked them to give of their time on Christmas Day, and they’ve asked nothing in return. If there is such a thing as the spirit of Christmas, I suspect it may have just passed through this draughty room.
Feel sufficiently emboldened to yell a full-lunged Jimmy Stewart-style ‘Merry Christmas everybody!’ as I set off down the side streets of well-heeled Islington. Cross back over the river as the weather becomes biblical and all the rain in the world is hurled at me, and the driving gets festive. Plunge into a waterlogged pothole in Brixton, and bike frame meets groin with force. Home by midnight. Bath, bourbon, Quality Streets, bed.
Tomorrow, Boxing Day is Christmas Day.
Or Groundhog Day. At least until Leo arrives. Languish in the half light of the pit until 9.30 before dragging my bones into the kitchen for a repeat of yesterday’s breakfast. Time enough for a whistle stop tour of the encircling Sainsbury’s locals in search of brandy butter. Success. Before long Leo is trundling down the steps in buggy, mum behind. It’s business as usual in the kitchen – a quick drop-off, a quick ‘how was yesterday?’, then Ellie to work and Leo and I are left to turn, belatedly, to matters Christmas. It takes a few moments for me to realise that not one seasonal greeting of any variety has passed between Ellie and I. We’re still locked in an ice age…
The remainder of the day is spent in the kitchen, and though of a decent size it seems to shrink as the hours pass. Leo bounces happily between me and the cupboards for the duration, but learning to cook a ham with a toddler in a space like this is not an experience I’ll be in a rush to repeat. One eye on Leo and one eye on the ham is not enough eyes. Pull a tile from a fridge magnet poetry set out of his mouth and waste precious time confiscating the whole set from off of the fridge door. Suspect the word ‘fusillade’ may well be working its way around his digestive tract as i do so. It’ll all come out in the nappies… With the giant fist of meat finally glazed and in the roasting tray, I take the opportunity to lay Leo down for a brief siesta.
We’re interrupted by a thump from the general direction of the oven. It’s a thump with a metallic undertone and I assume it’s the sound of a roasting tin readjusting to life under heat. I’m wrong. Leaving Leo to doze I return to the kitchen to find that the ham has exploded. The picture behind the glass door is an ugly one, reminiscent of the meaty mess left in the teleporter pod in the closing scenes of David Cronenberg’s cult shockfest The Fly, in which Seth Brundle attempts and fails to rid himself of the insect DNA that’s making life so inconvenient. For a moment I’m scared to open it. On doing so, a fleshy apocalypse reveals itself. Matter coats the inside of the door and charred gristle is welded to the inside walls. Refusing to buckle, I drain the oil from the beast, have a hasty clean up, turn down the gas a little and resume the experiment, fingers crossed all the while.
After dinner bedtime beckons for Leo, and I hoik him up onto the big bed for his first e-book on the iPad – Lemony Snicket’s The Dark, a beautifully illustrated story of a young boy’s coming to terms with his fear of the dark and a delight to read aloud, voices and everything. Once he’s slipped from shallow sleep into the deep and true stuff, I slip next door to my own dinner and a robust red. After a day of cooking the unventilated kitchen resembles a sweat shop, rivulets of meat infused moisture coursing down the walls. Approaching midnight on Boxing Day now and still not a present wrapped. Grab a bourbon and the half-full box of Quality Street to help as I remedy this, and in short order I’m stealing back into the bedroom as he breathes in and breathes out, and I rest an armful of silver-wrapped toys on the floor at the foot of his cot.
The day is soon fingering its way around the curtains once more, but it’s no Groundhog Day. Here’s Leo, standing up in his cot, head peering over the footboards, calling for me. I sweep him up with one arm, gather his presents in the other, and we bundle onto the bed for the big unwrap. Carefully sourced toys are duly discarded, and Leo is soon revelling in piles of the best wrapping paper he’s seen in his life. And he’s learnt a new trick. A kiss for dad. Merry Christmas, son.
Subsequent investigations revealed that the ham should in fact have had its skin removed before its fateful journey in my oven. Beginner’s mistake. It was, however, all kinds of sensational…