Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Giving of Christmas

Whenever I talk about the Bim and me, sooner or later I end up hearing myself say We're like chalk and cheese!

It's true: we are. In most things. But it has dawned on me these few weeks past, in those late-night, blurry moments of reflection in front of the Christmas tree, that there's one way in which the cheese, in spite of itself, is getting chalkier. Or perhaps that's the other way round. That way is about Christmas:

I do have some happy childhood Christmas memories, I do. I remember the door to the sitting-room being locked by my parents, Christmas Eve night, and the driving necessity to find the key and get it open and find the presents - at all costs! - shared by me and my siblings. I remember the manic excitement, the thrill, the longing for morning. I remember the colours, the magic, the feasts whipped up by my mother - and feeling sometimes near to happy tears, so heightened were my young feelings by the festivities.

Then my father left. What I remember most of Christmas after that is the terrible trying - the three of us for my mother, and my mother for the three of us - to make the irrepairable good again.

It never did come good, how could it? All times without him were sad, but Christmas really was the saddest of all. We were all the cliches, we lived them then, and we went on living them for many years, right into adulthood. Which is why, when the Bim met me, I was none too keen on the festive season. I weathered it, with a fixed smile and an aching heart.

Ah, how was I to know I'd married a Christmas freak?

This knowledge dawned on me, slowly but surely, not the first December-time we spent together, but earlier, much earlier that year, sometime in July, when I would catch him singing Jingle Bells in the shower; and a blackboard went up in the kitchen around September which announced (with daily, chalked updates) how many days left there were to Christmas.

I was horrified. I asked him to keep me out of it. I asked him to keep his singing to himself. I melted only a very little when he appeared in full Santa suit with six-month-old Little Helper in arms on Christmas morning. I was thrilled when it was all over. His exuberance embarrassed me.

Then, last year, we had a repeat performance of the Santa visit, only this time Santa's beard was alot longer, and his boots shinier, and a great deal more effort had gone into the whole affair. Sleigh bells had been ordered, for God's sake, and Santa's Helper - somewhat bad-temperedly, it has to be said - was now able to walk and carry her own tiny sack. I was a little bit impressed in spite of myself.

And so here we are again. And I find myself strangely lacking in the waves of melancholy I am so used to feeling at this time of year. Indeed, I was confusingly disappointed when the Bim took me at my word and the little chalk blackboard didn't go up until 1st December. Likewise, he really did stick to his promise and kept his bathroom sing-song to various sundry Irish ditties which couldn't possibly be construed as Christmassy. Now that we're nearly at the big day itself, I am delighted to note that his enthusiasm and joy are as unbridled as before.

But the big news is that I'm even more delighted to note that for the first year in - oh, I couldn't begin to know how long! - I too have back some of that joy. Yes, of course I have my own child now, and want to make it special for her. But it's not just that. Somehow, by ways both sledgehammer and subtle, my beloved Bim has done something for me no amount of time has been able to do. He has given me the best present ever.

Against all the odds, through his love and generosity and acceptance of me however I am, he has given me back Christmas.

May yours be merry. xxxx

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Putting on the Ritz

I was in the depths of duller than dull domestic chores when the text message arrived:

How does posh Indian in Mayfair sound for dinner tonight?

It sounds like heaven, I reply.

My astonishing friend Dee, whom I have known for nigh on twenty years, is waiting for me at Victoria Station. I fall into her arms and surprise us both by bursting into tears when she says she thought we might begin the evening - which is on her - with drinks at the Ritz.

If you knew how far that idea is from anything in my life right now... I splutter. She doesn't need me to explain. We go way back.

All dressed up for Christmas, London feels sexy and exciting. It's like being around an ex-lover you haven't seen for a while. It makes me feel a little more exciting, too.

Chatting madly, we catch the Tube to Green Park and I catch the buzz. What would have driven me crazy on a routine rush-hour journey when I lived in this city, now appears both desirable and impossible. Why would anyone live like this? I catch myself thinking, coupled with an enormous yearning to jump right back in.

The Ritz is another world. A liveried doorman bids us 'good evening' as we climb the red-carpeted stairs. Everywhere we turn there are sweet-smelling Christmas trees dripping with silver and gold. White twinkly fairy-lights stud the walls.

First off, we take a trip to the Ladies, as much to try out the lotions and potions as to relieve ourselves. It's all pink pastels and cherubs. There is a sofa down there, too, in a roccoccoed resting area of which Watteau would be proud. Frosted glass bottles of chilled water marked simply 'Ritz of London' sit on a little table in the corner, awaiting the dainty patronage of a fainting maiden, as do the various glossy magazines strewn on the coffee table - Tatler, The Spectator and one or two upmarket travel brochures for Africa. Of course: what better to do in a pause from the beautiful upstairs than plan one's next safari?

Thrilled and refreshed we find the bar, only to be taken through a curiously elaborate game of Will There, Won't There (Be a Table) by the dashing Italian Maitre d'.

'Oh, ladies, you haven't booked? I'm so sorry, the bar it is fully booked... Perhaps in twenty minuti? Ah, wait! For you, I will find a little niche, signore, a little sofa, perhaps, if you don't mind sharing for now..?'

We couldn't be happier to share. The sofa he offers us is, after all, half a wall long. And it is in the long hallway through which the hotel clientele must pass to reach their rooms. Since Dee and I share an eye for the absurd, we are in people-watching heaven. I am especially blessed, as my voluptuous armchair is tilted towards the wall, which is a long panel of paned mirrors, so I am able to stare to my heart's content at the various tableaux played out behind me.

A mother and father pass through with their three daughters of varying ages, each sporting long blonde hair and identical pink coats. We identify at least one gorgeous callgirl, and several unhappy rich wives. We squeal with delight that we are here, together, calling ourselves on a life we wouldn't want to live fulltime but which is irresistible to visit every now and again...

We each drink one slim glass of champagne before heading off for our meal. Our conversation, the velvet ambience, our palpable love for each other - all these work over the golden hour to soften life's recent rough edges.

Oh, the salve of friendship.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Road Rage

The Bim took Anna-mouse down to Kent Town on one of their jaunts today, to give me a breather from this 'I-wish-it-would-end' week. On the way, he saw a runaway supermarket trolley sliding down the middle of the road.

He and several other by-standers then watched as the car that came up behind it hooted - yes, hooted - at it to move out of the way...

This little tale, recounted on his return, really improved my day.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Reader, I Married Him

Last night I cried in his arms.

I can't get anything right, I said. I'm so frustrated, I said. I'm so guilty that I'm so frustrated, I said. I'm losing my patience too many times a day. I adore her but...

You're tired, he said. You've been ill, he said. You've been tired since you were ill, he said.

Let's go to the seaside tomorrow, he said. Early. Before I go to work.

So we did.

And as they stood by the shore and threw stones, I turned to him: I need to walk. Just a few minutes, I said. Go, he said.

So I did.

Up onto the shore walk, past the beach huts, running into the wind. Passed an ageing woman, bent double with her metal detector to the pebble stones. What might she find, I wondered. What treasure? None compared to my two, big and small, chatting by the shore.

I went on, past a woman pushing a pram and another with her dogs. Smiled vaguely, pushing on, relishing my own company and the sharp, low, winter sun. There's nothing like a beach resort out of season.

I returned soon enough to my two. We found a hotel with leather sofas and ordered coffee and crumpets and early Christmas muffins spiced with ginger. I felt refreshed; truly alive for the first time in too long. It's nice to see that smile, said the Bim.

This day is why I married this man. To be this known, this seen.
Knocks the rest into a cocked hat.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Livvy's Meme: Fulfil Three Dreams

This time of year, I often start to feel jaded, as though my 2006 shininess has rubbed off and all things, including me, need a bit of a spit and polish.

Certainly, today, the unpredictable weather outdoors and the unpredictable child indoors didn't help. There are great clusters of old leaves in every corner of the garden, and similar piles of rubbish cluttering my mind. I'm melancholy, in the way that I used to be as a child. Lonesome (though I was one of three) and longing for company.

(Ah, my child wakes. I can hear the Bim quietening her with a gentle 'Ssssh'. I tap the keys more lightly; pray she will lull back to sleep. Enough demands on my frayed self for one day).

Taking a quick back-check, I realise that the year's tail-end often causes me to pause like this. I'm usually exhausted in December, finding a small drop of juice for Christmas, then collapsing for the final week - only to emerge re-energised by the actual and symbolic hope of a new year.

And this year I'm going to follow the example of my very good friend Luke. A true lover of life, Luke has always said he sees no point in giving anything up for the New Year; that's so negative. His advice is to take something up instead. How's that for positive thinking? And it doesn't have to be just one thing, either, the more the merrier, I say.

So let's have a think, as the days reach their darkest, and there is promise of light and newness growing from the old - think of 3 things, 3 things we want to take up in 2007. The more wistfully longed for, the better. The more previously procrastinated over, the better. I'm going to take time to write mine down over a glass of mulled wine one late December night sometime soon and will share them forthwith.

Join me in fulfilling three dreams.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Happy December, Kay

Two schoolgirls, thirty years ago, catching leaves.

Plane trees offer big, crispy leaves at this time of year. They're ideal for cities; just as humans shed their skin, plane trees shed their bark every few years, so the smoke and grime never overcomes them.

In our quiet North London street they complemented the Victorian redbricks, reaching as high as the first floor windows. They spring to life later than other city trees, and lose their covering last. Which is how it was that Kay and I came to be chasing leaves that 1st of December, all those years ago on our way home from school.

It was dark, of course, so the leaves like our upturned faces were orange in the lamplight. We made up a rule as only teenage girls dizzy for love can, that whoever caught a falling leaf could have a wish, and that wish would come true. I caught a leaf and kept it. I probably still have it somewhere, crackly and dry, tucked in among the boxful of secret notes we passed endlessly to each other during the last class of the day. Invested as it was with such hope, I can't imagine I would ever have thrown it away.

Today, that evening Kay and I caught our leaves gleams purely in my memory; a tiny, thumbnail image of joy with undimmed edges. She is still a friend, though circumstance has taken her to a live her life in a different land. Her house is above a lake halfway up a mountain, really quite near heaven, looking towards a range of mountains. We speak infrequently, email erratically, text less.

And yet, in the manner of the best friendships, I am sure that were someone to ask, she too would be able to describe the night we ran towards the falling plane tree leaves as they sashayed to the ground.

Some things, just a few, never change.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Taking the Plunge

I did it. I have at last taken my whining, wistful self in hand, visited the local Adult Education Centre, checked out the childcare - and booked myself a place on a Creative Writing course starting in the Spring Term.

That means, in less plain English, that I have finally admitted that I can no longer exist on a daily diet of Domestic Soup alone and that for the sake of my very soul I've decided to break my vow that I would be Anna-mouse's only carer until she was all of 3 years old.

It also means that I felt sick the whole time I was discussing my options, filling out the forms, and checking out the 'Baby Room'. It means I almost whisked Anna-mouse up in my arms and turned tail when I read the large sign outside said room: 'We have had several cases of HEAD LICE. Please check your child's hair.' It means I am in no way hardened to the idea, let alone the reality, of leaving tiny person with anyone other than nearest and dearest for an hour and a half each week.

And yet. I'm doing it. And let's just run that bit again. An hour and a half. Each week. For eleven weeks. In the day. That last is important - the very idea of adult company, adult conversation which isn't toddler-based during the day! A slow smile is spreading... I can't help it: as well as being sick with trepidation, I'm also giddy with anticipation. It almost doesn't matter what the course is like - it's what it represents that's important.

Never mind Anna-mouse; Livvy U is growing-up.