While contemplating surviving another Christmas, an evocative memory unexpectedly erupted from the depths. It was so forceful, it caused that wobbly, panicked sensation you get when you put your weight on a stepping stone which isn't as stable as you’d thought.
I close my eyes and just about smell the tobacco, plastic, damp, petrol-fumy interior of the Triumph Herald. It’s noisy inside the car and I can sense the bumps in the road through the sub frame. Outside in the night, there are smudges of sulphurous yellow from the streetlights. Otherwise it’s dark with a density made more intense by being inside this square tin can on Christmas Eve in about 1971. I’m with my Dad. Just me. My brother and sister usually don’t get to do this. I don’t know if they don’t want to (my older brother) or maybe they aren't allowed (my younger sister) but this is precious, middle child, eldest daughter Dad time.
We have just started out and it’s cold - so cold. I have that electric zing in the pit of my stomach that only a child who really believes in absolutely everything about Christmas can have. I feel I may go off like popcorn.
Mum has parcelled everything up and Dad has been dispatched with labelled bags, orders and me (a time chaperone). As if my presence will get him home quicker. Once in the car and away from the house we may as well have driven through enchanted gates to wonderland. A wonderland made of darkness, expectation and the illicit joy of an apparently purposeful journey that is bound to end in nothing but delight.
There’s no need to speak. I don’t get the ‘how to behave at other folk’s houses’ speech I would get from mum. Dad knows I know. Maybe that’s why I am allowed. I’m no better than a kid should be but I know that politeness can result in sweets and rich dark cake in the black households, mince pies, maybe a special thing off the tree in the white abodes. Quietness means you can listen in on the adults’ chat or sneak off with any other children that may be there and not be checked.
And my dad is one of those people who others are always pleased to see so arriving with him is, in itself, a treat. They invite him in. For form’s sake he initially refuses as he has other houses to visit. Sometimes I am left to wait in the car to reinforce the fiction that we do not expect to linger. Then we go in. Dad is pressed to take a drink. Again he refuses. And before I know it he is on the sofa with (if it is one of his relations or work colleagues) a canned beverage which is always poured into a tumbler before drinking or (if it is a maternal relation) subtler, heavier liquid in a small patterned glass with a pungent smell that reminds me of Christmas pudding then dominoes may appear. I have a drink and something sweet to eat or some treat that says ‘Christmas Eve food’. In the white houses the TV is usually on and in the black its music.
A while later – time that as a child I cannot possibly guess at - we return to the car. Although the cold in the car is fierce I have residual warmth inside me emanating outwards. It will keep me going until the next house.
In the car dad will have a cigarette. I love the smell. The windows are open just a crack because of the temperature. This is different to the summer when dad drives with his right arm resting on the fully open window blowing the smoke out like – he tells me – James Dean. But I doubt James Dean’s arm turned a cruel red and blistered. Although I am brown – unlike my brother and sister but like my dad – I also burn in too much sun.
We visit house after house. Uncles and aunts, some work contacts, friends, and neighbours. No one seems to mind what time it is and towards the end I have to force myself to stay awake. My excitement is dulled a little by a slight belly ache and fatigue but the night has become no less magical.
It’s only as an adult that it occurred to me that my Dad must, on these wonderful, wonder-filled blissful nights, have been as pissed as a newt.
In case anyone misconstrues this little blog – it is not homage to drink driving and other dangerous habits. My father died an unpleasant death from lung cancer five months to the day after he retired. No. This is about magic and love and innocence. When I recalled these memories I got a tiny echo of the gut wrenching thrill of a Christmas that was special partly because of those trips in the Triumph Herald. That time was also wonderful because as kids we were not constantly bombarded with acquisition. Christmas didn't’ start in July. We weren't surrounded all year by possessions we didn't want and hadn't asked for or stuff we did want and had asked for but got too easily.
I also had no idea how lucky I was to experience the dual tastes, smells, sounds of both a white and black Christmas. It was just different types of bliss to me.
Curmudgeon that I am (I stringently avoid most of the commercialism now), I still like Christmas in essence. There is something intrinsically pleasing about a festival that centres on joy whether you take the Christian view or the pagan one of celebrating the survival of the darkest part of the year. I’m not unusual in resenting the commercial excess of Christmas. Back in that Triumph Herald, Christmas and the annual celebration of the rejection of darkness still had a beating heart. We were consumers then but not quite to destructive excess. Now we are devoured by Consumerism in the same way my dad was overwhelmed by cancer.