The idea of Christmas in Hallmark rom-coms and Richard Curtis films. Coordinated, beautifully wrapped, perfect presents, on-time flights, a meetcute, the light dusting of pristine snow, plenty of parking, enough chairs around a generous dining table with a fabulous meal and a family who get on, are the ideals we enjoy over and over again.
Who wants reality when we’re trying to escape it?
So it’s 6am Christmas Day, and I’ve got period pains and a hangover. Fortunately, the kids didn’t see me just eat the mince pie that they left out for Santa. I tell them that he can’t drink at every house or he’ll need to pee and that will affect the logistics of his schedule. The turkey is still borderline frozen but it does fit into the oven, which is a major plus, and the children have already demolished their selection boxes. They’re whining about how rubbish their stockings were and it’s not fair that they have to wait until their teenage brother gets up and Grandma’s here before they are allowed to open their presents.
By 10am, Grandma has arrived and the first thing she tells me is that I should cut a cross in my sprouts. She says I’m brave for stopping dying my hair. I haven’t. The teenager thinks it’s ridiculous that he can’t play his new computer game on the big telly or in his bedroom, but has to stay in the living room all day with his own family. The little ones are struggling with the unboxing of their toys and all of those twisted wires wrapped around every single piece of plastic. I know we bought extra batteries, but just where did I put them?
No-one wants smoked salmon and scrambled eggs with bucks fizz because they’re all too full of Quality Streets and Miniature Heroes. I warn them that there won’t be any other food on offer until 3pm when we have lunch. If they’re really hungry they can have a couple of satsumas.
Noon. The nine-year-old has worked out the cost of the gifts and is upset because the teenager had more spent on his five small electronic gifts, than her twenty-five presents. She’s on a sugar crash from the breakfast chocolate and wants to start making things from her new craft kits. I make a few rounds of sandwiches and open a tub of Pringles. My head is pounding and I’m simultaneously glad I couldn’t find the batteries for the kids’ noisy toys but slightly concerned that I wasn’t supposed to have champagne and co-codamol together.
2pm. My husband’s brother and young niece arrive for lunch – without the elder one. She’s helping out in a homeless shelter today, mostly for the bragging rights and her college application. Our teenager is crestfallen. I put the nutroast back in the fridge. Apparently, shelters are turning away helpers on Christmas Day, but there too few volunteers to be found in the middle of snowy January. The cousins compare presents.
3pm. Lunch. The youngest has decided he doesn’t like turkey and wants some yorkshire puddings. So does everyone else, so I put a tray of Aunt Bessies in for five minutes. His plate now contains little spat-out blobs of food, (because Christmas Dinner is “skusting”) including cranberry sauce, brussels sprouts, red cabbage, stuffing and turkey. He eats six pigs in blankets, some carrots and gravy. Grandma isn’t impressed.
4pm. I get to sit down for the first time for more than 10 minutes all day. The men are in the kitchen washing up, playing with the new coffee machine and putting the world to rights. I’ve banned all talk of Brexit in the house, so they decide to go up to the teenager’s bedroom with him to check out his new computer game and chat about the state of the nation. Mum is gently snoring in the best armchair. The kids seem engrossed in some Pixar film on TV. I’d like nothing more than a hot bath and to get into my new pyjamas, but that’s not going to happen.
5pm. I put out some cold cuts and pickles, cheese, crackers a few bowls of crisps and mince pies onto the dining table. That’s all I’m doing for the rest of the day.
6pm. His brother is leaving to pick up the daughter and take mum home. I give them the untouched vegan nut roast to take with them. I reassure them that I didn’t go to any trouble finding it. They don’t need to know that I bought it online, paid a premium for next-day delivery and had to take a day off work to wait in for the non-time-specific refrigerated truck.
We decide to play the board game that the little one got from Santa. I don’t quite understand the rules but it has something to do with which animal can eat the most before it poops. I promise him that we will definitely find some batteries for his police car tomorrow.
7pm. The teenager tells me that his dad had four espressos “to test the machine” and that is why he’s got an upset stomach. Nothing whatsoever to do with drinking since 10am.
8pm. Unbelievably, the little one decides he’s tired and wants to go to bed. The teenager says he will make sure he brushes his teeth and will read him a story. That leaves me and the nine-year-old to have control of the TV and watch our favourite Christmas special. We make some hot chocolate with tiny marshmallows and have a lovely peaceful evening of mum and daughter time together.
10pm. Bedtime. I check the doors, the hob and turn off the Christmas tree lights. All three of my boys are in the teenager’s bedroom playing some unsuitable computer game. Fortunately, the little one is fast asleep. I scoop him up and put him in his own bed, and leave the other two to their game.
Soon, this perfect day will be a wonderful memory, which is the best gift I could ever wish for.
I’m lying on my belly on a crocheted blanket on the grass, propped up by my elbows, wearing a found, floppy hat, reading a book without a dust cover. A book that’s older than me. That’s too old for me. One that I couldn’t borrow from the library for another two years. But, this is the summer holidays, and there’s an unspoken, earned freedom. People are more relaxed about everything. My bare feet are suntanned with the pattern from my jelly shoes.
We never realised just how few glorious summers we would actually have together as a family, before we went our separate ways to college, or that we even knew we were supposed to try and make the most of them. How could we? Barely a handful of years of endless summer days, making daisy chains, running through the sprinkler, eating ice cream, riding our bikes until our legs ached, searching for baby crabs in rock pools, regretting not putting on sun cream, building a den, wishing for a treehouse, reading every book in the house and deciding to write my own, making best friends with a girl from the caravan park down the road, who I would never see again after that fortnight, picking and gorging on wild fruit, wearing the same t-shirt or necklace for weeks on end, never ever mastering how to stand up on an old wooden surfboard, making our own ice lollies from flat pop, or truly knowing boredom. My older brother tried to convince me that was how board games got their name, but I never quite believed him.
The inaugural, world triathlon, board game championships were invented in the summer holidays sometime in the early 80s, in an old clifftop farmhouse in Mother Ivey’s Bay, Cornwall. The house is still there, you can Google it.
Weeks of training had led to that moment, which was a few days before the August Bank Holiday. That date symbolised our summer was nearly over, and next week meant we would have to get haircuts, new shoes and start a proper bedtime routine again for school.
Draughts, ‘Connect Four’ and ‘Downfall’ made it to the finals. ‘Ker-plunk’, ‘Buckaroo’ and ‘Jenga’ were lost in the initial heats, due to their messiness, missing pieces and not complying with the new equality rule. Contestants could not be discriminated against for having dexterity issues (preschoolers and arthritic grandparents). Those games were far from relaxing as everyone had to be quiet and tensed up every time someone had their go. After a couple of drinks, the adults were rubbish at them anyway.
‘Sorry!’ too was removed in the semis. The nature of the game required a good easygoing, sportsmanlike temperament, and the ability to read. For the same reason, ‘Monopoly’ was also banned. It ended with too many slammed doors and furious arguments. ‘Cluedo’ never even stood a chance.
One summer, we were obsessed with card games. What do you do when you don’t know any except ‘Snap’? You create your own future classics such as ‘Scabby Knuckles’ and ‘Cheat’.
Rain stopped play for the ‘outdoor’ rounds of kite flying, frisby and non-stop cricket. The wind was so gusty once that it did actually lift me up off my feet. Not a good idea when the house is on top of a cliff. My father took our kites off us after that. I don’t know where he put them, but it wasn’t the boxroom. That oversized cupboard was too small for a bedroom but just perfect for all kinds of junk and the first place anyone ever looked for someone during our many games of hide and seek. It was where (almost) every toy and piece of sporting kit ever owned by the family for the last hundred years was stored. It had everything, and I mean everything. Flippers, prescription swimming goggles, skis, home-made body boards, a selection of life jackets from throughout the ages, hundreds of little green army men, one even hanging by his parachute from the ceiling lampshade, plastic toys from children’s TV shows, a repaired paper pinata, various Sindy dolls in 60s fashions, several mismatched china tea sets, still containing mummified Mr Kipling French Fancies, dried-up felt-tipped pens and cracked brown plasticine. New racquet sports were invented with a wooden, barely strung tennis racquet vs a child-sized, modern badminton racquet still in its plastic wrapping. Deflated footballs, non culturally appropriate, highly flammable dressing up clothes, headless dolls and an out-of tune electric guitar with, amazingly, two spare packets of strings, a heavy crackly amplifier and a whole book of sheet music of folk songs. My subsequent concerts consisted of the two songs I learnt. “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and “Strawberry Fair.”
Tents that had been packed away wet, so reeked of wood smoke and damp when unravelled. Great clods of dried mud and spores from mould clouded the room as the heavy canvas was lifted heavily and dropped open. Not one useable tent-peg. Those tents were hauled out onto the lawn, scrubbed down with a broom and hot soapy water with bleach in it. Then left to dry and assembled. The best bit was sitting inside whilst someone else poured a watering can over it to search for leaks. Rewaxing a tent with a candle or vaseline required a lot of effort and didn’t seem worth it when it rained. Spraying it with reproofer was just too expensive. All that for a couple of nights under the stars.
After the great jigsaw fiasco of 1984, it was agreed, nay, ordered, that all pieces had to be carefully stored inside a plastic bag before they were put inside the box. Recent discoveries unearthed a plastic fruit crate stuffed with carrier bags from long-forgotten shops (Liptons, Presto, Bishops and even a few from Woolworths). Unfortunately, few bags survived. Even plastic bags left exposed to light disintegrate into a shredded mess of crumbs quicker than you realise.
A dented, wooden trunk from some great-grandmother’s schooldays contained old clothes people had left behind or grown out of, so there was always a swimming costume, a pair of sandals or waterproof coat to hand. That garment might not have been made in this decade or the last, but we didn’t care. I loved that trunk, not only because it looked like a pirate chest, and so could hold treasure, but this distant relative and I shared the same initials, which were still faintly visible in aged gold on the front.
This old house part-belonged to three relatives, cousins, I think. They were the children of the last farmers. It had long since stopped being an actual farm, and the adjoining land was the perfect endless lawn for croquet and afternoon tea. Old photos actually show a road with horse-drawn carts in front of the house, but coastal erosion put a stop to that a long time ago. So a football pitch sized piece of private land on top of a cliff, overlooking the sea was priceless for memories but virtually worthless as real estate. It was just a matter of time before it was gobbled back by the sea. In an area of the country where the majority were priced out of the housing market, it seemed baffling that nothing could be done to save what little land there was.
As was often the case with family heirlooms, each sibling had their own ideas of what should be done with it. As none could agree on whether the house should be sold, lived in or rented out for the holidays, it was left to the executor Aunt to mediate. She owned the five-roomed cosy cottage adjoining the house, which had once belonged to the farm staff, and earned a living from working in a local shop and illustrating children’s books. A gentle existence. It seemed a perfect life to me. The money left over from holiday rentals of the big house barely covered her expenses in advertising or maintenance, so as none of the siblings saw any return, they just dug in their heels or forgot about it, depending on your point of view. As time went on, and the value of the house increased significantly, their own confirmation biases about their own original opinions hardened. “Its a good job we didn’t sell it then because it’s worth a million quid now.” “If we had sold it back then, the new houses will have spoiled the view and they would be falling into the sea. Wouldn’t you feel guilty about people losing their homes?” “People should live in this house while they still can.” “I want my kids to spend their summers here just like we did, for their memories.” “I want to live here a few months of the year as my share, so you can’t sell it.”
With hindsight, perhaps the siblings should have left it six months or a year to live with their grief and for the anger to subside, so their recollections had time to marinate, before they discussed any future of the house. Its history was still too raw right then.
A more uncommon feature of rambling, tumbledown country cottages than British rom-coms would have you believe is the private beach. It was actually a right of way on public land but very few people ever discovered it, most likely due to the ‘Danger! Keep Out!’ signs that were dotted along the winding, sandy, road to the house. They were erected when the original cliff side road began to crumble, and were never removed. This was the house at the end of the lane. Cut off. We could actually scramble barefoot down a gently-sloping, cliff embankment to our own secret beach. Only once did my brother attempt to bounce down it on his space hopper. A trip to A&E served as a reminder to the rest of us how stupid of an idea that was, as was his tanned body and white right arm for months after the cast had come off. We were the Famous Five, having adventures, allowed to play out of sight for hours on end, only knowing the time due to our rumbling bellies. There was an actual gong in the hallway, which mum would bong twice at 5pm, so we knew how much time we had left to play outside. Last one in got a cold shower or a three-inch bath made barely tepid by a hot kettle.
Jealous of school friends who stayed in an apartment in Spain and went to organised kids clubs, I also envied those closer to home to got to go to a water park at Butlin’s every day, and were entertained nightly by people who’d been on TV. It never once occurred to me that they would look back and wish they’d had an English bucket and spade holiday.
Once or twice we’d have an actual trip to the seafront, for 2p arcade games, and Dad would buy a tray of whelks in vinegar from a stall. I always hoped we could see the lifeboat going out. We’d come back with cheeky postcards to send to our friends and pockets of sugary treats which were supposed to last us the rest of the holiday. Sometimes, my mother would take us girls shopping, and we would meander down the cobbled streets away from the neon, and find little shops smelling of patchouli, that sold crystals and dream catchers. I might be lucky and get some joss sticks or a bracelet made from polished semi-precious stones. The real treat would be sniffing out a second-hand bookshop. My pocket-money stretched far in a place like that. I used to play a game whereby I’d guess the pencilled-in price on the top-right of the first page. Everything tumbled in together, coexisting. All genres muddled up, except for a curtained off ‘adults only’ section.
If I close my eyes and inhale, I can still smell it. My summers. The house. Old books. Woodsmoke. The sea. Hot sugar. Lavender.