It was the year before the Christmas I spent at a friend’s, away from what for a time was a non-existent home.
The village was called Thorpe Morieux, which pronounced in Suffolk dialect comes out as M’roo. We were living in a rented cottage. ‘We’ meaning the four of us, my father having recently left to move in with the woman who, on account of her long black hair and no doubt her powers of seduction, my mother habitually called the Witch. There were nights when mum was so distraught and maddened with jealousy that she packed us and sleeping bags into the Mini, and drove around for hours, trying to track dad down, not yet knowing where he lived with the Witch. A couple of nights we even slept in the car despite the winter cold, warmed only by the bags and occasional running of the engine and heater. On other nights, when dad had visited to see us and argue with her, she would place herself in front of his Datsun as he tried to drive away. We would stand shivering just inside the gate, petrified by the combination of dad revving the engine of the Witch’s Datsun and mum screaming. And then we’d all jump in the Mini and set off in low-speed pursuit.
Inevitably in the run-up to Christmas Day my mother’s mind was elsewhere. By Christmas Eve, there were no decorations, no signs of anything to do with Christmas beyond a few cards on the mantelpiece. Nor was there a tree; it really looked like Christmas was not going to happen. As in The lion, the witch and the wardrobe, it seemed it would be ‘always winter, and never Christmas.’
Dad came that afternoon and the arguments raged into the evening as usual. From the landing we listened to their fluctuating flow, raised and heated voices one moment, reasonable and difficult to discern the next. After a time we went to bed, expecting nothing of the next day, and not caring very much about that. We wished only for peace between them, for the barely remembered order of what seemed like long ago to be restored. I’m not sure we even bothered hanging up stockings.
But in the morning there they were bulging at the foot of each of our beds. Downstairs cards were hung on strings, and last year’s pastel-coloured paper chains looped from spot to spot suspended from the ceiling. Best of all – and to see it was one of the most magical moments of my childhood – there was a properly dressed tree with a small mountain of presents under it. Somehow the warring factions had pulled themselves together enough to rescue the day for their children. My brother and I tore off the paper on a Subbuteo set, the World Cup edition, complete with scoreboard, floodlights and a plastic replica of the Jules Rimet trophy. After lunch, a proper Christmas one, eaten in harmony, Brazil took on West Germany, and beat them 4-2, despite the South Americans being forced to play with only ten men for a large part of the game, my brother having broken one of their legs under his clumsy knee.
In an unconscious recreation of Christmas 1914 – peace and football in the no man’s land between the trenches – my mother and father managed to call a truce for the day, and it held at least until we went to bed again, although that may be because dad simply disappeared after lunch; he is gone from my memory of the evening. But because it had really seemed that there would be no Christmas, in the end it felt like one of the best.
Photo of Norway spruce by Philip Halling via Geograph.