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"What's to-day, my fine fellow?" said Scrooge.
"To-day!" replied the boy. "Why, CHRISTMAS DAY."
25th December 2000
I woke up at about ten o'clock. So here it was. Another Christmas day. My heart sank. Yet another Christmas night had come and gone and no sign of a single spirit to teach me how to live each day as though it were Christmas. I'd not been able to sleep and had ended up watching TV and reading a chapter or two of Dickens "A Christmas Carol" until about five in the morning as the rain poured outside. I'd had a glass of wine and a good slice of cheese late in the evening before retiring in an attempt to encourage some life changing visitations but once again it had all been to no avail.
I'd held my breath at some ungodly hour as strange noises emanated from the wall, but nothing happened save except perhaps for the secret positioning of a stocking of gifts next to the bed of my next door neighbours soundly sleeping young son by his tired eyed mother.
With a hearty Christmas breakfast of coffee and cigarettes out of the way I roused myself to go and do the morning feed of my neighbours cats. She had gone 'home' for the few days over Christmas so it seemed only polite to offer to do the necessary. As I had insisted she had left written instructions about how much to feed them and how often and had also left the telephone number of the local vet, 'just in case'. Finding that written down was something of a wakeup call. I naively hadn't even considered the possibility that they could get ill or injured and require emergency treatment. Indeed one of the cats obviously did have a problem and really should have been taken to the vet some time ago because it was constantly drooling from it's mouth with maybe a bad tooth or something similar, but that was an ongoing thing and despite my disapproving concerns best left to my neighbour as none of my business. I found it best to try not to think about possible emergencies but of course it did prey on my mind. It was all very well giving me the vet's telephone number but what if I actually had to go there. How would I pay and how could I possibly get someone else's struggling cat into a cat basket and strap it to the back seat of my motorbike and ride who knows where? I found it best to try not to think about it!!!!
Stepping out of the front door and picking my way in my slippers carefully through the trodden 'gift' that some passing dog had left on the pavement right outside my gate, I made my way up to my neighbours house. Noisily unlocking the door and stepping inside after having checked that my shoes were clean I called out in my best attempt at a friendly cheery Christmas morning voice so as not to cause a panicking stampede. "Puss. Puss. Puss. Happy Christmas puddy tats." It wasn't a very convincing greeting but seemed to do the trick as only one furry blur fled from the room. The rest of the cats just sat where they were on the sofa and chairs blinking and stretching as if it was an every day occurrence that I, a stranger, should suddenly invade their territory. One or two even seemed grateful for a stroke or two as I passed by and made my way to the kitchen.
Their Christmas breakfast was rather later than what they are used to but when I said I would feed them, I made sure I didn't promise to feed them at any particular time. No way was I going to get up every morning right throughout Christmas at six o'clock just to feed them as normal. From the amount of food that was left in their bowls from the day before it seemed quite obvious that they weren't going hungry and that, if he had visited there in the night, Santa and his reindeer didn't like cat food. Actually nor do I. If there is one thing I cannot stomach it is the smell of cat food and especially for breakfast! With lots of holding of breath and turning my head away to try and gasp some fresh air and keep my rising stomach in check, I cleared and replenished the bowls with a tin of Chicken chunks and some crunchy things from a large sack. Disgusting smell!! Those cats that had bothered to follow me into the kitchen and had stood nearby miaowing as I finished my chores were clearly none too impressed with their Christmas breakfast either and simply eyed the trays from a safe distance.
I didn't want to hang around too long so I left them to it and went back into the sitting room and pulled open and carefully positioned the curtains. This was a probably unnecessary ritual since I was leaving a couple of the lights on all the time, but it seemed wise, just to make sure that any local burglars thought the place was occupied. With my agreed duties done I sat on the sofa and announced that I was giving away some stroking if anyone was interested. It only seems right. I don't think cats can live by food alone. No matter how aloof they often seem to be, it is quite obvious that they really do miss their human company and being stroked from time to time. As usual several of them couldn't be bothered and one upon whom I tried to force my affections even got a little sharp and hissy, but true to form the old male stripy cat who's been around for years and who I've got a lot of time for, came bounding over straight away and sat himself next to me. He seems to have mellowed with age, and has got rather 'old man skinny', but he definitely likes to have his neck stroked and rubbed and shows his appreciation by pushing his head into your hand and purring oh so loudly. One of the others decided to follow his example and with a purring cat in each hand I gave them as much of my time as I could. It wasn't as much time as they wanted and I eventually decided I'd have to leave them wanting more. The old male bounded up onto the back of the sofa and followed me to the door, which seemed rather nice and made me feel guilty as I wished them all merry Christmas in my stupid 'talking to cats' voice and once more locked the front door behind me.
Doing my strange little dance over the mess near my gate I managed to succeed in returning to the warmth of home with clean feet.
It is a very satisfactory mutual arrangement upon which I insist with all those I know, that we don't do presents at Christmas. Just cards. It isn't a Scroogey thing. It's just common sense. We all seem to have reached an age where frankly if there was something we wanted we would probably have bought it ourselves by now. I can't remember the last gift I received that I actually wanted, that wasn't an embarrassing waste of money and that didn't end up kept out of guilt in the back of some cupboard or other. I know it's the thought that counts and it makes people feel nice and all that but it really does seem to have reached the point in this commercial age where giving gifts is little more than some sort of obligation. If you don't you are labelled a Scrooge! Well if that is the case then I for one will be a Scrooge every Christmas. I would rather everyone bought themselves something they really want, if and when they have the money to do so, rather than waste their efforts on me. Bah humbug!
Having said all that, there is still a certain dissatisfaction in sitting down on Christmas morning and finding yourself with nothing to look forward to opening. I can't help it. I guess I've been brainwashed by the films and commercials as much as anyone else.
Wait a minute though. There was that box that a friend had sent me in the post. The one that had made me feel SO guilty because I'd sent back nothing but a card. I opened my present. It was a Christmas selection box of chocolates, the postage for which had far outweighed the value. I was nevertheless most grateful.
With my unwrapping done I showered and dressed in rather tidier clothes than normal making as much of an effort as I could out of respect for the day, although of course I always wear black. It did occur to me to wear my Santa hat that I had retrieved from the attic while searching for unused Christmas cards amongst all my decorations. I'd ummd and ahhhd as I pawed over the boxes of tinsel and the flat packed artificial tree but eventually decided I just couldn't be bothered to lug it all down and spend hours decorating the room. It's just different when you are on your own. It just seems too sad to sit amongst your decorations for a week only to put them all away again with hardly a soul any the wiser for your efforts. Sadder than not bothering at all. I didn't bother. I didn't bother wearing the hat either. It takes a certain gladness of heart and radiating joviality to go about wearing such a thing and I really didn't have the heart to do it.
I sat in front of the television and watched the usual dreadful Christmas morning fare and waited for Mum and Dad to arrive. I guess there is something infectious about the Christmas atmosphere and as time passed I began to feel less inclined to just hide away until it had all passed and regretted not having done something appropriate on my computer. I'd meant to. I really had. For the last several years I would normally do some silly little festive program or at least an electronic card of sorts. This year I just hadn't had the spirit in me and the closer Christmas got the less I felt inclined to even turn the computer on, lest I should be confronted by some seasonal wish of happiness which I knew I would not feel. I should have replied to several people's e-mails. I hadn't and now regretted it.
"To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call 'nuts' to Scrooge."
time was it? How long did I have? I rushed up to the computer and
as fast as I could, I managed to throw together a very, very
stupid picture of me with a Rudolph nose wearing a Santa hat!
Maybe it was because of the dark humoured film that was on the
television about how a grumpy divorced businessman had found
Santa Claus dead in his garden, but I couldn't resist making my
picture rather more sardonic than seasonal. As quick as I could I
sent it off to a couple of people with the title 'Yo, ho, bloody,
ho!!', just for a laugh, but the doorbell thankfully prevented me
from inflicting it on too many. Mum and Dad had arrived.
The usual 'hellos' and 'Happy Christmas' were soon dispensed with and replaced with 'Check your feet! Check your feet!' and in depth descriptions of the perils of the pavement just outside the gate. My poor old carpet has seen better days and much, much worse and I tried to convince them it wasn't worth worrying about and to just come on in. After Mum had dutifully held up each of her feet for Dad to inspect them and give them the all clear, they eventually came inside out of the gaze of the neighbours who I was sure must be watching the spectacle from every window. The conversation stayed on that subject and got rather heated when I refused to let Dad go outside with bowls of hot water and disinfectant. It felt like I was six again. Nevertheless I was absolutely NOT going to suffer the embarrassment of having my father cleaning the pavement on Christmas morning! He wasn't happy but I got my way and we all sat down to chat and await the summoning phone call from my sister. Unfortunately it wasn't as simple as that since Mum and Dad had brought a couple of things up with them and Dad had to make a couple of trips out to the car. Each time he did so was to the accompaniment of muttering about 'damn dogs!' and much theatrical emphasis of stepping carefully and checking of feet before coming back in.
My old broken drill I'd given Dad to have a look at was presented back to me in fully working as new condition. He also brought in the old footstool they were getting rid of which I'd said I could make use of. Strange Christmas gifts indeed to any passing observer perhaps but as gratefully accepted as any I have received.
It wasn't long before we got the call from my sister that she was ready to receive us and that we should make our way over. I paused briefly to check all was secure and to pick up the bottle of wine I was taking. No. Actually I paused deliberately just so I wouldn't have to stand witness to Dad shouting warnings and instructions as Mum fearfully danced a hopscotch over the messy pavement on her way to getting into the car without stepping in what one would imagine from Dad's tone would have meant imminent death by a lightening bolt from heaven if she had!! With them both safely installed in the car it was safe to proceed, so I locked up the house and nonchalantly strolled round to the passenger door as though I wasn't being careful where I stepped, although of course I was. Settling into the car I felt rather guilty carrying my bottle of wine. After all, six year olds aren't supposed to drink are they!
The roads were quiet and in no time at all we were almost there. On the way we did pass a petrol station that was open and there was some debate about whether or not Dad should fill up the car just to be on the safe side for the late long journey home. He decided he had at least half a tank and that would be quite sufficient since we weren't planning on doing any 'running around'.
We were soon happily parked on my sister's driveway and ringing her doorbell.
My sister appeared at the door all dressed in her best sparkly Christmas dress half hidden behind her apron and made to welcome us but there was a more than 'normal' Christmassy hint of panic in her eyes.
"I've JUST been speaking to America on the phone" she announced.
Imagining that as is sadly often the case she had just spent some time listening to my other sister in America cry down the phone that 'things aren't going too well right now!' and she was wasn't happy and was spending Christmas all alone and away from her family, was probable explanation enough for that look. We've all had that powerless despairing look after some of her phone calls! But that wasn't it.
"I've got no electric!!" she said, as the fairy lights all round the room flashed on and off quite merrily and the blaze of table lamps all around dazzled us by reflecting off her silvery dress . . . and matching shoes of course. We all started to get 'that look'! It was patently obvious that she did have electric and since the whole house was shining brightly from every window, probably visible like a beacon from miles around, it seemed as though she really did have more than her fair share! What was she talking about?
Her frantic attempts at an explanation at first shed no more light on whatever the problem was. Apparently we were all to blame because we didn't have our mobile phones turned on! This at least made a little sense so I started apologising and explaining that I hardly ever use it anyway, and Mum and Dad started searching in Mums handbag to see why theirs wasn't on, as we crowded into the dining room.
The house was warm and bright and inviting. Festive decorations and cards were all around. A log fire was crackling and blazing away in the old stone fireplace. A real Christmas tree all laden with sparkles and twinkling fairy lights was sat pride of place in the window. Decorative candles danced brightly flickering in every corner. The great wooden table all carefully laid with best tablecloth, silver, wine glasses and crackers, was set ready for our feast. And on the air from the kitchen, a hint, just a trace, of the smell of the food cooking, to stir our appetites and sharpen our hunger.
It was the stuff of Christmas cards and soppy festive films come to life.
These things don't just happen. She'd worked hard at this. Despite only having a few days off from work she had seen fit to take it upon herself to endure all the worry and preparations to make a Christmas dinner fit for kings, just for me her 'Scrooge' like brother, and her Mum and Dad. We three kings were thus, much honoured.
With the mobile phones discussion out of he way we eventually got to the heart of the matter. She'd been trying to phone us to see if we had any fuses that we could bring!! Not long after having phoned us to say that everything was in hand, the dinner was on and she was ready and that we should all come over, the fuse box trip for the power supply to the cooker had blown!! The cooker AND the hob!!
We all crowded into the kitchen. Immediately, as he always seems to when there is a crisis, Dad turned into his usual cross between Sherlock Holmes and a Royal Marine Commando. Get the facts; plan a suitable course of action under the prevailing circumstances. I am of course my father's son and I couldn't help but chip in with what I felt were necessary and pertinent questions during my poor sisters rigorous interrogation of what happened EXACTLY when. As only our family seems to do, often much to the amazement of fearful onlookers, the 'conversation' got faster and faster and more and more heated as if in some horrible argument immediately preceding fisticuffs! It's just our way. There never seems enough time to say what needs to be said and when one is as logical in his problem solving as is my Dad it is apparently vital that each question should be answered most fully and in precisely the correct sequence. Never mind what you think may actually have happened and your tell of the tale. I need these answers, NOW!
Eventually, with me playing a supporting role as Dr Watson, we had all the facts of the case and moved into the 'elementary my dear Watson' phase of the crisis. So, the problem was either, that appliance, that appliance, that fuse, that trip, that switch or in the worst case scenario, that piece of plastered in the wall mains cable that may or may not have been drilled through once before, or a combination of all of them! By now my sister was understandably not very happy to say the least despite being consoled by Mum who was saying that it didn't matter and everything would be ok, in that comforting reassuring way that only mums can do. How delighted Mum managed to appear, clucking with approval as her slightly tearful looking daughter pulled out tray after tray from the cooling oven of uncooked chicken breasts meticulously wrapped in bacon, and an acre of pale unroasted potatoes.
Parachuting into action and hitting the ground running, with a quick unconvincing reassurance of 'it'll be alright', Dad and I fled from the uncomfortably emotional atmosphere in the kitchen and headed for the understandable practicalities of the fuse box near the front door. Because of the electrical problems she has suffered she'd had the fuse box recently renewed. This was something of a shock. No good old-fashioned replaceable fuse wire or removable fuse cartridges to be seen. Just row upon row of separate circuit breaker trip switches. The switch for the cooker circuit was obviously tripped and needed resetting. After confirming that everything that wasn't now working was safely turned off, Dad unwillingly conceded that since I was the tallest I would have to reset the switch.
Over the years I've had the odd electric shock or two. Not proper ones but gentle ones or really not ones at all save for some obscure connection to electricity in general.
Like the time I was using my electric drill to put up a new shower rail in the bathroom and stood in the damp metal bath, drilled through the tiles, the wall and into the buried 45amp shower cable. I've never been happy with the way good old metal has given way to cheap light plastics in the making of power tools. You can't beat the feeling of ability and confidence a nice heavy metal handled drill gives you when setting out to drill a hole but I guess I have to admit that if I hadn't bought myself a new plastic drill before that day I would have found myself drilled into a hole. There was a flash, a bang, the fuse box trip tripped and the drill bit disappeared in a puff of smoke. Amazing really. The 'just' putting up a shower rail turned into a week of chiselling out, re-wiring and retiling!
Then there was that time that, having absolutely no choice because of the insufficient length of the mains wire protruding from within the concrete floor in the kitchen I was forced to bury an ugly joining block into the wall! I knew it was dangerous and I knew it was wrong but I really had no choice at the time. It all seemed to go pretty well until I came to do the plastering. Somehow the plaster was too wet and as I smoothed it over the cemented-in electrical block the water reached the live wires. With each smoothing stroke of plaster over the wall I got a gentle tingling from the handle of the metal trowel that spread up my wet hand and into my arm. It was actually quite pleasant and almost energising!
I know I've been very lucky nevertheless these escapes have given me an unhealthy disrespect for things electric.
With little concern I stood on tiptoes on top of the second or third stair and reached up and flicked the switch.
I didn't get a 'shock' but it certainly was a shock. With that almost crumbly pop that only electrical pops seem to make there was a bright green flash at the end of my finger as the trip switch refused to reset and fought back against my persuasion. Very quickly definitely no longer on tiptoes it was impossible not to look just to check that I still had all my fingers. I was intact and unharmed except for maybe the hair on my head standing on end from the fright, making me look like perhaps like I was indulging the season and had a Christmas tree on my head!
It seemed pretty obvious from this that we weren't going to be able to simply pinpoint a broken cooker or hob. It was probably the cooker and hob wiring circuit somewhere and that would mean having to remove the fitted cooker and hob and lots more of the kitchen and trace wires and maybe chisel out plaster and, and . . . not now, not us, no way! Powerless we returned to the kitchen. Having pretty much lost the first battle, Dad withdrew to his Sherlock Holmes position and decided to do a bit more 'Please! JUST THE FACTS!' interrogation. Mum tried to be helpful amidst the shouting and keep things optimistic and even offered helpful questions to be answered but I suspect her analysis of the facts was rather more hopeful than helpful.
'No Mum. Believe me. The lights are on. It's got nothing to do with everyone cooking Christmas dinner at the same time as her.'
My sister equally scientifically had concluded that it had happened because she was jinxed, the house had it in for her, and just because it was her.
Dad saw we were rapidly sinking into surrealism and carefully steered the conversation back to practical matters and what we were going to do to win the immediate battle of the food. It was confirmed that the microwave oven was still working at least and if needs be we could do as much as possible in that. Considering the microwave was rather small it seemed pretty obvious it would likely take all day to pass the feast my sister had half-done, through it bit by bit. It seemed far easier to suggest that we could take everything back to my place and do it in my gas oven. I'd roasted a couple of chickens only a week or so before and with that practice fresh in mind was reasonably confident that since everything was already prepared and all the hard work had already been done I could probably handle the finishing. Dropping this seed of an idea into the debate I retreated outside for a calming cigarette. Spotting the barbeque in the garden the situation really didn't seem so bad. If all else failed we could always barbeque everything . . . but was rather cold and damp and what on earth would the neighbours think!!!
Back to the kitchen debate my sister really was looking rather sorry for herself and obviously didn't want to give up her day ruined day completely. It seemed easiest to agree that what we would do was take all the roasting food to my place in the car and put it all in my oven while she stayed there and did the vegetables in her microwave. We'd synchronise everything by phone and we'd tell her when things were done and when we were going to be on our way back over. Everything could be reheated in her microwave when we got there just before dishing it all up. That would work. It was only a few miles and ten minutes or so each way. It was decided.
The vast metal tray of roast potatoes was slipped into a clean carrier bag and the huge covered metal roasting tin containing all the bacon wrapped chicken breasts was slipped into another. With cheery shouts of 'it'll be all right. We'll phone you' we loaded up the boot of the car and got ready to head back to my house. It was my sister's turn to be a six year old. Stood all miserable faced and tearful in her kitchen watching as her Christmas was about to be driven away. I'm not a demonstrative type at the best of times and am ill versed in the practice of hugging but if anyone ever needed a hug it was her right then no matter how much of a shock it may have been coming from me. Looking over her shoulder as I did so I spotted the bottle of wine I had brought and it seemed not an unreasonable suggestion that she should help herself to it when we were gone.
Unexpectedly back on the road Dad reconsidered the petrol situation and decided that perhaps he would fill the car up if the garage was still open, just in case, to be on the safe side. One of the lesser benefits of a multicultural society, the garage was still open and Dad had soon filled up and was paying the dark skinned attendant for whom Christmas was one of the better paid working days of the year. Sitting on that forecourt with other customers coming and going it did seem a really rather strange place to have our Christmas dinner!
Back at my house there was no escaping it and Dad once more sternly choreographed our clean-footed dance to the door. Straight through into the kitchen we went and laid out the food trays on the worktops ready for action as I turned on the oven. Under the emergency circumstances I really couldn't see the point but Mum insisted that it was vital that the oven should be given time to pre-heat. I did argue a little but eventually conceded that Mum knew more about the best way to cook such things than I ever would so there was something of a pause in the panic. This unfortunately gave Sherlock Holmes time to spot that the oven door didn't really fit properly and the heat would leak out and he immediately started trying to examine what the problem was. Although I'd already tried to bend the metal door back into shape myself on many occasions and had failed I left Dad to have another go and took the opportunity whilst the oven door was open to get Mum to examine the shelf positions with her experienced eye. The top shelf was fine for the potatoes but there wasn't quite enough room for the big metal roasting tin containing the chicken underneath so quickly wearing my oven gloves before things got too hot I rearranged the embarrassingly grease covered shelves. Mum shrank back in horror at the sight of years of cooked on grease but contained her urge to flee and simply casually asked if I had an apron or something similar that she could cover herself with. I never use one myself but remembered that someone had given me a great big plastic one once as a joke with a big cartoon like picture of a muscular Mr Universe body all down the front, and somewhere I still had it. After a little searching I eventually found it, folded up and stowed in the bottom of the warm drawer amongst the metal oven trays and cake pans that I've never used. Quickly wiping the dust off the plastic onto my trousers I unfolded it and slipped the straps over Mums head before she had a chance to see how ridiculous she would look all bulging biceps and 'six pack'! It really was just like the TV show, as though the stress of events had turned her into the 'incredible hulk'!
Although I'm sure she could have cooked up everything from experience to perfection with her eyes closed, more familiar with her new electric appliances Mum needed a little reassurance with my old fire breathing gas monster. She asked if I had any cookery books just so she could get a feel for what gas setting equated to what electricity setting.
I only have a few cookery books but remembered that I did have an old one with the cover falling off that she had given me some years before. It was a funny old thing called the 'Cannon Cookery Book' that had been printed somewhere around 1955 specifically for use with the Cannon A125 gas cooker. An old black and white picture on the inside showed a very prim and proper manicured lady with her evening dress covered by a spotless ironed apron, in full make up, high-heeled shoes and perfect fifties hair-do with an angelic smile contentedly grilling more food than most could have afforded at that time. Such was her obvious affection for her kitchen appliance that it really was almost possible to believe that the cannon A125 was "The cooker that every woman wants".
When I'd looked through this book in desperation in the middle of some culinary experiment or other (I think I was having a roast potato crisis at the time), I'd found it contained old hand written bits of paper that Mum had written as a memory jogger when suffering the traumas of Christmas meals gone by. Hand written lists of details catalogued almost every Christmas meal from at least 1974 through to 1986 even down to the price of sirloin beef per pound, which is what we always had for our Christmas feast! I don't know what happened in 1985, I'm sure there was no such thing as B.S.E. and the beef crisis back then, but two pounds and thirty-eight pence a pound?!! Extortionate. No wonder we only had six and a quarter pounds in weight between us all.
"Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing."
One of these lists of instructions was most clear
and concise and had everything timed precisely to the minute. At
such and such a time pre-heat the oven. Put the meat in on this
shelf at that time. Raise temperature to this heat at this time.
Add potatoes at this time. Do this then, do that then. And
finally as the hand written note said, "at 01:30 have
nervous breakdown." So, no breaking with tradition this year
As if the ghost of Christmas past was hidden in those notes, Mums eyes sparkled as she flicked quickly through, re-acquainting herself with gas 'marks' and memories long gone. As Dad chipped in with attempts at heat conversion calculations I decided that the crisis now almost cooked was actually quite fun and . . why not! I poured myself a gin and orange. Just to get into the spirit of things you understand. I was coping. The phone went and I retreated to the front room to answer it. It was my sister in America. I'm sure the events that were unfolding WERE quite funny but I can only assume they were funnier from afar. If it weren't for the heated debate that was still ongoing in my kitchen about whether or not the oven was yet hot enough, I'm sure that Mum and Dad would have been able to hear the hysterical screams of laughter that were coming down the phone, all the more so because I was having to hold the phone well away from my ringing ear. Apparently when she had phoned my sister to wish her the customary Merry Christmas she had been greeted not with great joy but with cries of despair and more than just a little uncharacteristic swearing before quickly being cut off because we had just arrived outside all hungry and expectant! It was funny and of course impossible not to make the predictable jokes about 'meals on wheels' and how all the stress had turned me to drink and the like.
The uncomfortably heated exchanges in my kitchen made me cut my part of the conversation short and encouraging Mum and Dad to each have a word in turn with their daughter and indulge the laughter, I returned to the kitchen to assist in putting the food in the now hot oven.
With best wishes dutifully exchanged and my sister promising to phone later to see how we got on, we all crowded back into the kitchen to anxiously wait. It seemed silly to all be stood there and succumbing more than once to the desire to open the oven to see how things were going only to make things go even slower it was eventually agreed that we should all just go back into the sitting room and wait for at least half an hour before having another look.
It's funny how familiar one gets with ones household appliances. It's not something you try to do. It just sort of happens over time. I've had my oven for many years and am pretty familiar with its idiosyncrasies. When it heats up it makes a strange rushing noise like some far off jet aircraft as the gas flames dance within. And then at some certain temperature for reasons only known to its self, it sets off the electrical clicking of the automatic gas lighter for a moment or two. As we sat nervously waiting in the sitting room, in a pause in the conversation, I could hear none of this. Something wasn't right! The kitchen was just too quiet. Oh no! OH NO!!!!! I DON'T BELIEVE IT!!!!
It had happened once before. Some little while ago while preheating the oven for some hot meal or other something had gone wrong with the thermostat that controls the gas flow. The flames would rise and fall, rise and fall of their own accord and never heat up to the proper cooking temperature eventually not rising at all no matter what I did. That meal had been cancelled but at some point later the fault had somehow rectified itself.
Now it had happened again but this time there was no persuading it to rectify itself. My cooker was broken too! Now what?!!!
Dad started with the Sherlock Holmes once again, but I'd already been through all that with myself and I knew there really was nothing to be done. I never play with gas appliances; it's just TOO risky. It was broken. That was the end of it.
What was left? I still had the gas rings and the grill and a microwave. Mum perhaps inspired by her Mr Universe apron and refreshed memories of previous such battles, seemed not at all daunted by the prospect of putting all the pale un roasted potatoes bit by bit through the microwave. It seemed quite reasonable that we could brown them off under the grill once they were soft which wouldn't be so far from what a roast potato is anyway. Ok . . that would work, what about the chicken? Pulling the big metal roasting tin containing the chicken out of the oven it seemed with it's lid, just perfect for putting on one of the gas rings. We could 'boil' the contents in their own juices and finally flash them under the grill to brown them off and give them a crispy coating. 'That'll work. That'll work!'
Despite concerns over whether or not it would ruin the roasting tin I popped it precariously over the biggest ring and set the flame on whatever seemed to be reasonable. In no time at all the juices within were bubbling merrily, albeit only in one small part of the enormous tin. Mum and Dad set to, trying to find appropriately large microwaveable containers in my meagre collection of glass kitchenware. I felt obliged to quickly go and call my sister and tell her that there had been a slight hiccup in our plans and we might be a little longer than we had first thought. She seemed to accept the news quiet merrily but did admit in response to my questioning, to having had a glass of wine or two . . . or three.
I did try and call my other sister in America just to keep her laughing but as is often the case on Christmas day I couldn't get through and all the lines were busy with people probably calling their relatives after having just finished their Christmas dinner. Lucky devils!
Despite the fact that I had eventually found the microwave oven handbook, none of us were too sure about how long to put the potatoes in for or on what power setting. Half the potatoes were microwaved for what really seemed like far too long in several sessions of three minutes at a time checking in between with a fork to see if they were yet still hard. Eventually Mums experienced touch announced that they were done enough and we put the rest of them in with a little greater confidence for several minutes cooking all in one go. Anticipating we would soon be nearing the 'flash them under the grill' part of the exercise I tried to think ahead. How on earth would we get all those potatoes under the grill? It seemed pretty simple really. If I removed the removable grill tray they could all go into the grill pan and all be done at once. The only rather embarrassing problem with this idea was the state of the grill pan. When I clean my grill I tend to rather concentrate my efforts on the tray and much less frequently the actual pan. It was filthy. Even I wouldn't have been keen on eating potatoes that had touched on that! There was a bit of frantic washing up of the grill pan in the sink.
The phone went again and from the hysterical shrieking almost even audible in the kitchen it was clear that my sister in America had heard the latest. She at least seemed to be having a great Christmas morning!
The grilling of the potatoes seemed to go rather well. It seemed reasonable to choose one of the smallest ones to eat as a taste test, not least of all because I for one was by now rather hungry to say the least. It wasn't bad. It wasn't bad at all even if it did taste more than a little like a French fry. They'd do.
The steaming roasting tin containing the chicken on the gas ring was doing ok too. Just to make sure things were being done more evenly than they might have been had we left it, we gradually moved the tin around so that each part got an equal share of the heating and occasionally laboriously turned each chicken breast over in the juices. Once again Mum set to with her fork, testing the texture of the meat to see how well each piece was cooked, but this rather seemed unnecessary to me since I had no doubt that they 'd seen more cooking, here and there, than they would have normally. We were soon spooning and forking the chicken into the grill pan and watching in satisfaction as the meat browned and crisped and began to look and smell like something very appetising indeed.
With hardly a pause to let things cool down, everything was being put back onto trays and into pots and being carefully covered in carrier bags ready for its journey home. Sat back in the sitting room marvelling at how much steam and condensation was running down the walls and windows I phoned my sister to tell her that everything was ok and we would soon be on our way back over. Relief or just more wine, I don't know, but she seemed quite 'merrily on high' and said that everything was going well her end and she would be ready. As if having synchronised our watches, and as though Dad was a sergeant major commanding us to keep in step, we set off dancing over the minefield that was the pavement, carrying our precious hard won cargo back to the car.
We were off. We were off like an off road rally racing car! It was Dads idea of a joke but Mum didn't see the funny side and demanded he slow down from the back seat. The joke was also lost on me somewhat, being used to him often actually driving very much like that for real, when racing back with portions of chips from a chip shop so as to get home and eat them before they get cold. Thankfully he did slow down and the drive back to my sisters was really quite sedate since we had to frequently slow down and negotiate the narrow lanes full of people walking off their Christmas lunch. Lucky devils!!!
At last we were parked up and unloaded and my sister set about receiving our efforts and incorporating it into what it was she had been working on. She'd made very good of the situation indeed. Huge bowls of steaming fresh vegetables lay warmed in front of the log fire and more were all but ready in the microwave. Everything seemed to fall into place perfectly thanks to her efforts and around about four o'clock almost as soon as had we taken our places at the table as we were bid, we were presented with great plates of chicken and sprouts and stuffing and roast potatoes and this vegetable and that vegetable. We even had gravy. My sister seemed most especially pleased with the success of the gravy and frankly I can understand why. After all how on earth do you make a suitable quantity of gravy for such a great feast without having a heated saucepan in which to make it? Well, let me share with you her 'eureka moment' secret. The coffee percolator! Brilliant huh? A huge great jug of gravy all kept warm as you like on its own little hot plate till it's time to pour it out. Brilliant. So brilliant in fact that I think she had celebrated the idea with a glass of wine and had shared her celebration with the mix of the gravy in perhaps too liberal a fashion. Like it or not I rather think it is true to say that my tea total Dad can no longer claim to have never known drink.
It was a marvellous dinner. One of the finest I've had, undoubtedly made all the finer for our share in the earning of it. There was so much left over that asking for another portion was cause for little embarrassment at all and gave yet further opportunity to make jest of 'More coffee on your sprouts?'
I ate more than my fair share and indeed pretty much everyone's share of the stuffing, and I enjoyed every mouthful. The gravy really was particularly nice and it was only because my sister opened another bottle of wine that prevented me from refilling my wine glass with it.
At last, with a promise that I could take the left over food home for my dinner the next day, complete with a carafe of gravy, I had to concede defeat and squeezed my stomach out from behind the table and made my way to a comfy chair for a little bit of collapsing.
If there is one thing I hate after a good meal it is having to wash up. In fact it is perhaps more accurate to admit that I hate having to be awake at all let alone having to do the washing up. Sadly my sister is one of those people who squeezes washing up into any available spare second during a meal and it was particularly awkward to sit there and hear her splashing away in the kitchen. I left it for as long as I dared but eventually my guilt got the better of me and I edged her out of the sink and started my usual way of doing such things. Of course my way always turns out to be no one else's way and I had to undergo a crash course by embarrassment of how it 'should' be done. I tried my best and almost made the grade. There was only one fork rejected that I may or may not have accidentally thought was washed when in fact it wasn't. And who would have guessed that you should change the soapy water if it gets too dirty half way through a single wash up? I'd never done that before! That was like doing two lots of washing up all in one go. Double the mind numbing boredom and soapy unpleasantness. I find it bad enough doing one lot, so I generally save it up for a few days. Cheaper on washing up liquid and hot water. That sort of thing. I guess I've lived on my own for too long huh?
At last all the chores were done and with a piled up next days dinner plate set aside for me, we all retired to the living room with it's bright candle light sparkles, soft plump sofas, Christmas tree and warm log fire glowing in the hearth.
"At last the dinner was done, the cloth was cleared, the hearth swept, and the fire made up."
All of a sudden to my great embarrassment it was
gift-giving time! 'But we agreed we don't do gifts!!', I
desperately protested, but it was too late. My sister produced a
couple of wrapped boxes from beneath the tree and quickly handed
them out and Mum and Dad suddenly ran to the other room to
retrieve those they had secretly brought for each of us. I had
brought nothing! I felt awful but there was no escaping it so I
awkwardly mumbled my thank yous and Merry Christmas and opened
the gifts. Something chocolatey to eat and something to use to
get whatever 'I' wanted. It couldn't have been better save except
for my guilt. Next year, I plotted. Next year I'll get you all
As we all sat and chatted some more it was impossible not to notice that the lights kept on flickering. All of them, all the time! My sister was already on the edge of a hysterical break down over everything in her house always going wrong, especially the electrics, so we all tried to ignore it and not mention it although we all exchanged the odd worried glance.
Should the truth be known I don't think there is anything really particularly wrong with the wiring in her house. Any wiring that can stand up to the amount of power surging through it day and night that she has, is doing pretty well. She really does have quite a flair for interior design but her particular obsession seems to be the lighting. She has lights absolutely everywhere. Loads of them. For each bulb that you or I might have she will have half a dozen. Multiple lamp fittings, wall lights, and table lamps abound on every ceiling wall and floor. If in my poetic licence you think I exaggerate then let me say if I am guilty of exaggeration of any type it is in the understatement! She is never content to simply adequately light the room she may be using. She has a wide selection of lights and she intends to use them! All of them, all at once, most of the time! If she does indeed having a wiring problem I am not convinced it is only the wiring in her house!
No one knows quite how he did it, perhaps reaching up to change some blown light bulb or other, but Dad at some point pulled a muscle in his back. As the day wore on his movements seemed to become more and more awkward and stiff as he winced and rubbed his neck shoulder. Helpful suggestions that he should take this medication or that pain reliever were of course rejected out of hand as though Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without feeling the full force of the pain!
When he disappeared up to the bathroom at one point I don't think it was only me who stood in the kitchen in conversation all the while listening out of one ear just in case there should be some horrible fainting crash from above. Any further attempt at continuing the conversation was ended as we all stood and listened to the strange trumpeting moaning sound that echoed from the ceiling above. My sister's face fell with embarrassment. It was the pipes. The pipes were vibrating as Dad pulled the flush. There is something wrong with my sister's toilet cistern and it has often been commented on behind her back that using it is an embarrassing chore. Somehow earlier in the day the subject had come up in amused conversation and I had shared what I had found to work. When you need to use her flush you have to catch the handle just right and surprise it and then as soon as the water hints that it may just may start to flow you starting pumping the handle up and down really quickly until it does. As we all stood in silence and listened we could hear a frantic pumping of the handle followed by another long groan of the pipes. It was hilarious. Poor old Dad knew nothing of his laughing audience to his doings. Inevitably he eventually came back down with descriptions of how he had removed the cistern cover and had adjusted the ball cock and water level and how this or that further adjustment would make it all work a little better, for the benefit of my sisters peace of mind all the time avoiding saying the obvious which was that it all needed replacing.
The fire was getting low and there was no more wood left next to the hearth so thinking it the decent macho sort of thing to do, I offered to go outside and bring in some more wood. The eagerness with which my sister accepted my offer should have warned me that I was offering more than I had bargained for. Armed with a couple of plastic carrier bags in which to put some logs I headed off into the darkness outside. After having spent the last couple of hours sat in her brightly lit room in front of the fire it was very dark and very cold outside as I gingerly inched forward around the conservatory with the three foot drop into the freezing pond somewhere hidden in the blackness to my right. Splashing through a puddle I eventually made my way to the side of the house where somewhere there was a pile of ready cut logs. It was even blacker here in between the wall of the house and the fence. I couldn't see a thing. Not even the hand in front of my face that was waving around in mid air trying to find the pile. In my desperate search it occurred to me that what my sister needed here was an outside light of some sort. Fool! She does have an outside light, on the wall in the dark somewhere above my head. I well remember perching precariously on top of a ladder in the dark some months before trying to help sort out whatever the fault with it was. My sister and her electrics!!!!
Eventually I stumbled over a block of wood and luckily managed to stop myself falling by finding the top of the pile. With some difficulty I filled the carrier bags with enough heavy bag splitting logs as to make the effort worthwhile and gingerly made my way safely all the way back to the warmth and bright comfort of the fireside.
I was loath to get too involved with the caring of the fire in case I showed up my ignorance. You see I've never actually made a real log fire as far as I can remember. Being brought up in the age of electronic ignition gas fires and automatically timed central heating I've simply never had to. It's one of those things that I've simply never been taught how to do and as such the making of a fire that actually burns and keeps burning has taken on a mystical and highly skilled appearance. I don't know where I have learned of the embarrassment and public ridicule likely for someone who is identified as having extinguished a fire by putting the wrong log here or poking with a poker wrongly there, but I am certainly fearful of becoming that person. No one else seemed particularly interested in getting involved so despite my worries I started to position the logs onto the burning embers in a ridiculously intricate interwoven criss-cross hatch design. Of course I had worried for nothing and the flames soon licked up and warmly devoured whatever I had carefully positioned. Very crackly, very satisfying, very warm, very enjoyable flicking my cigarette ends into the embers.
Extending the warmth of this now embraced Christmas spirit we phoned my sister in America again and took it in turns to tell of our triumphant battle and listen to her laughing all the more, while Dad paced impatiently concerned for my sister's phone bill until the call was done.
"And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for one another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him."
I can't quite remember what it was that started
us off again. I think it was some innocent remark by my sister
about how some more lights were now not working, as she made a
cup of tea for us all in her blacked out kitchen, by now fearful
of putting any lights on at all!
I'm sure the wine she had consumed had blurred her judgement and all the details of what was and wasn't working had become confused for her, or, well, maybe it was something to do with the wine I'd had too. Before we knew what we were doing Sherlock and I were re-examining her evidence and coming to the conclusion that maybe it was the cooker circuit switch mounted in the wall that was at fault. All we needed was a screwdriver and maybe we could have a look inside at the terminals to see if they were shorting. The prospect of having to go out to the shed at the bottom of the garden was to be avoided if at all possible so my sister dug out her favourite electrical kitchen knife from a kitchen drawer. It used to be a sharp knife but somehow the tip had been broken off and this was what she used more often than not to undo screws in plugs and appliances. Normally I wouldn't have dreamed of making things so difficult but at the time it just seemed easier to get on with it. I carefully scraped the paint and plaster from the plastic switch casing and set about undoing the two long mounting screws. They were very, very long screws and I was stood there for quiet a time twiddling and twiddling with my broken knife. At last I had them both out and carefully, very carefully with Dads help managed to pull the case front a little bit away from the wall just enough to look inside. We couldn't see a thing. It was far too dark with the spotlights above our head not working. Dad disappeared somewhere briefly but soon reappeared with a torch. That definitely shed light on the situation. As we moved the front of the cooker switch, it was quite obvious immediately that the negative wires were not clamped in the terminal at all, and were dangling loose, while the positive live wire was clamped but was protruding dangerously!! We dared to think that we might have found the problem.
There was nothing for it. We needed the tool kit from the shed, so like it or not I had to go and get it, although now I had a torch it wasn't such a problem and was soon back in the kitchen looking at the bare exposed wires. Perhaps it was because I was well aware that I'd had a couple of glasses of wine and was likely to be the victim of poor judgement, but I suddenly came over all full of trepidation. I'm not a particularly Christmassy person at the best of times and really care little for it, but it seemed unfair on everyone else to perhaps die on Christmas day from electrocution and thereby have the day thus remembered and ruined for the rest of the family for ever more. I took a careful moment to make sure that all the appliances were turned off and that the fuse box trip switch was still definitely unset. Despite this I was still rather unhappy at playing around with the mains wires without having turned off the electrical supply to the whole house just to be on the safe side. How could I test the wires to see if they were safe? There was nothing for it. Ignoring my sisters suggestion that I should put on a pair of rubber Wellington boots I took hold of the small plastic handled knife and holding my breath deliberately shorted out the wires with the metal blade. Nothing. Thank goodness.
With Dad holding the torch so I could see what I was doing I set about trimming off bits of insulation and refitting all the wires and clamping them up safely and securely. Even if this wasn't the problem it certainly couldn't hurt leaving it all in a safer better state than we had found it. It wasn't long before I had done all I could do and we were carefully pushing the switch cover back into the wall and tightening up the screws. I was almost convinced for a moment that everything would be now be ok but sadly a flashing popping sound from the reset fuse box when we tested flicking the cooker circuit switch confirmed that nothing had changed. Enough. No more. This was a job for an electrician with test equipment and no qualms about dismantling half my sister's kitchen, but that would have to wait until Christmas was done and hourly rates were not quite so festive. I returned the tools to the tool shed and finally, definitely gave up.
Returning from the garden, approaching the back door I wondered if the strain of it all had finally got to my sister or if she'd had far more alcoholic gravy than anyone had realised or maybe that was just the effect her recently arrived boyfriend had on her. All dressed in her shiny silver dress she appeared to be dancing on the kitchen worktops! On closer examination she had apparently decided to check out the spotlight bulbs above the sink that were no longer working. They were found to be blown, and without a little stumbling on stepping back to earth, they were added to her seemingly never-ending list of blown bulbs to buy.
Once more with nothing to be done about it all, things calmed down and we all returned to the sitting room to chat and drink wine, lounge about and generally relax with the occasional cup of coffee and a little later scooped out portions of a rich chocolate trifle just to ensure we had all eaten to excess.
Mum had even had a drink! A special liqueur she had discovered that tasted like marzipan and made us discuss our favourite way of eating Battenburg cake and we all agreed it was best to cut off the marzipan and save it till last to be eaten all in one go, so nice was it. I don't know if it was Dads bad back or his unease about her drinking but the more she drank the stiffer he seemed to get. To my Dads embarrassment my sister had told her boyfriend on the phone that my Dad had a problem and she had asked him to bring with him his muscle relaxant cream when he came. Faced with this act of kindness it was harder for Dad to refuse without causing offence, and despite his objections he was eventually persuaded by enthusiastic nurse Mum to disappear off into another room for its application.
Time slipped easily by and as the last of the logs were put on the fire Mum and Dad suggested they had better be on their way, being faced with having to drop me off and then the two hour drive back home.
As we made ready to leave with our coats and shoes it was clear that Dads back was still causing him great pain. I confess I was a little more than surprised when my half joking offer to lace up his shoes for him was humbly accepted. I'd never done anything like that before. It felt very strange. It had always been his job to tie up my laces in years gone by. I'd naively never imagined that it could work out the other way around.
"Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be only?"
By the time I had finished tying them the ghost
of Christmas future had come and gone and I was thanking my
blessings and acknowledging that many people are faced with quite
a bit worse.
We said our thank yous, goodbyes and good luck with the electrics and were soon driving away with a wave and my pile of takeaway dinner. The drive home was not as relaxing as it could have been. Dad's neck seemed to have seized up completely which largely prevented him from looking around to ensure that the road was clear, although I guess after a lifetime's abstinence the shock of the gravy could have been the cause. At each and every junction Mum and I had to shout out whether or not it was safe to proceed and too often it wasn't. It seemed to affect his hold on the steering wheel too and more than once I held my breath as we passed a little closer than normal to a traffic light or kerbside.
After what seemed like a longer trip than normal we were eventually back at my house and being sternly reminded yet again to watch where we put our feet. As if we could possibly forget!!
After a brief stop and a general agreement that the day had been rather good, with hugs and carefully stepped fond farewells they set off on their long trip home.
It was about ten o'clock before the cats got their evening feed and a hasty stroke or two but there was food left in their bowls and they seemed content enough with however they'd spent their day.
Back at home I whiled away the couple of hours it took before Mum and Dad phoned to confirm that they had arrived home safely.
With a still full stomach, tomorrows lunch in the fridge, a box of chocolates near at hand, my feet up in front of the fire and heart warming Christmas films on the television I had to confess I felt pretty good about Christmas and not so bad about days in general.
I guess visitations from Christmas spirits can take on many forms.
was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well,
if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!"
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