101. Christmas Presence

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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.


94. Hydrophobic

We run into the old bus shelter, giggling like schoolgirls who have just seen someone they fancy. Within a few seconds, we are mere inches away from a curtain of rain. Not the famous grey British drizzle that makes pavements slippy, but a stop/start torrent where gardens get battered with a side order of flash flooding.

The man who was earlier repeatedly throwing a ball to a soaking wet joyous dog, runs by, led by his bounding Labrador. They are followed by a drenched youth, dressed in a thin t-shirt and jeans. He’s walking quickly, head down, shoulders hunched, hands thrust deep inside his pockets, but he’s too far gone to consider trying to save face by seeking shelter. Fate accepted. This is a moment to remember, like when I got dropped off at the supermarket, still wearing my slippers.

We’ve all been there. Stripping off in the kitchen, today’s clothes thrown into the washing machine, running upstairs in wet underwear, stepping straight into a hot shower. Bragging rights come later. Newspapers stuffed inside shoes for a day or so, with no guarantee that they would survive.

We were reliably informed by the lady in the chippy, that the local premier-league football team who we saw training on the beach, had left this very chip shop just minutes before we went in. She didn’t ask for any selfies. Their anonymous steamy minibus is parked near to our bench. I suppose this weather gives them a rare moment of normality, away from the spotlight.

“I really do need to re-wax this jacket. It’s no good to no-one in this state. I might send it off, and get this hole fixed as well.” I say, waggling my index finger through the pocket at him.

“Or you could just get a proper jacket.” He replies. “Don’t you get hot in that? It’s really heavy. You’re dressed like Scott of the Antarctic and I’m, I dunno, Bear Grylls.”

“Would you drink your own pee though?”

“If it was filtered I would. Why not? If it was that or die.” He admits, unashamedly.

He unwraps the steaming damp paper parcel, to reveal “one fish, half chips and scraps please.” I take off my sodden coat, and drape it onto the wooden bench next to me. I run my finger over the ‘DS x GT 4 eva’ engraving and wonder if they still are.

We take turns to jab our tiny wooden forks into award-winning chips, then pant like we’re in labour, to try to cool our mouths. Fortunately, nostalgia also bought me a small bottle of bubblegum-flavoured pop.

“Look, see how the water forms little balls and runs right off? The seams are taped. No leaks.” He says, demonstrating the technical properties of his Italian-designed jacket, a favourite brand of football terraces. It really is water off a duck’s back.

I’m the opposite. I’m hydrophilic. I live to soak in the bath, revitalised by twice-daily showers. I’m the “aahh” after a drink, who deliberately splashes in puddles, washes up dishes, is queen water bomber and dominatrix of nerf gun fights. I swim every week and dream of dissolving my worries in a good sauna. That first cold shower is incredible.

We holiday in the UK, out of season, enjoying a run out in the car to the seaside on glorious autumn days. I call it ‘VIP’ because sometimes we are lucky and get the beach to ourselves. Returning to our holiday cottage with a pocketful of pebbles or shells, a handmade bowl or seaglass pendant and a selection of cards from a craft shop (to support local artists). Future memories for other people’s birthdays.

It’s the little things, like sharing a cone of chips on the wooden boardwalk on Lake Windermere, Cumbria. He stood, deliberately blocking the low winter sun from my eyes, one hand shielding me with his open coat from the icy wind.

That time I spilt hot vinegar on my only pair of jeans in Padstow, Cornwall. I love tangy, soggy chips from the bottom of the polystyrene tray, but I’m so clumsy. Someone should really invent a powdered version of salt and vinegar. Like a wet finger final dab at the end of a packet of crisps, but sold in a little tub in the herbs and spices aisle. I would keep it in my bag, like some people do with little bottles of Tabasco, to sprinkle whenever needed. Redistribution of flavour, then the first few chips wouldn’t have to be so salty, and the last few, so dangerous.

A toddler squatting to investigate every piece of driftwood and seaweed, apparently equally repelled yet delighted by the gentle waves that chase, cover then retreat from her yellow wellingtons.

We once stood up, mid meal, to let a small child continue their busy, important business of trying to walk unimpeded, the whole length of a low brick wall in Cromer, Norfolk, whilst we simultaneously shoed away aggressive seagulls, who were not used to tourists finishing their chips.

There’s a time and place for peeling chili prawns bigger than my thumb, sucking their heads, then dabbling my fingers in the water bowl. Lemon halves wrapped in muslin, white napkins, matchstick frites and elegant sips of chilled Pouilly-Fume. As there are for Jenga-stacked, thrice-fried chips, minted peas, local IPA beer battered cod, and their faux-hipster, gastro-equivalents (the basket/bucket slate-not-plate arrangement) of proudly sustainable pollock, gurnard or lemon sole goujons. Sometimes, they just cannot compete with the traditional northern chippy cafe’s plastic checked tablecloth, white buttered bread cakes, scraps, mushy peas or curry sauce. Oval plates, with crunchy haddock hanging over the edges. Utilitarian turquoise tea cups and saucers reminiscent of school crockery, non-brewed condiment, shaken granular (not flaked) salt and generic ketchup from a huge plastic tomato.

Fish and chips are on almost every restaurant menu in England, but no two meals are ever the same.

17. Good riddance to the time of your life

No-one tells you about the reality of living in a converted, industrial building in the regenerated, hipster part of town, down near the docks. The trendy idea of the cool, urban, party loft was very different experience for me day-to-day. What was once a dusty, 18th century, grain warehouse, straight out of the film, ‘The Conversation’, was now shiny, high-spec, open-plan apartments. Exposed brickwork, wooden beams, huge red cast iron pillars, oversized light fittings. It had history. It was portrayed as an aspirational lifestyle choice for the young professional. These flats were swanky alright, but the glossy brochures didn’t quite tell the whole story.

For example, those luxury apartments were not soundproofed. At night, in bed, you could hear every fart and snore from the neighbours above. Every argument. You knew what they watched on tv in their bedroom. You knew the regularity and routine of their fast and furious sex life including the preferred settings of their toys, that she’s loud, he’s not, and he pees first afterwards. That they don’t flush their en-suite at night. But,  if we could hear them, that meant the people underneath could also hear us.

The harsh, incessant, cawing seagulls and her upstairs stomping around with her hob nailed clogs on the solid oak floor were all you needed for an alarm clock in this flat. There were no curtains at the windows; we were too high up for anyone to see in though these tiny windows, so we woke with the sunrise, or if sunrise was after 6.45, we would wake to their alarm clock.

Every Friday night, without fail, on the dot of 9.30pm, the sounds of “I’ve had the time of my life, and I never felt like this before…” drifted in, and slowly got louder and louder, as the party boat cruise brought back its latest shipment of merry, cackling hen party revellers. Another unwanted annoyance that also wafted in uninvited when the Julienne balcony doors were open, was the unmistakeable herby smell of weed from downstairs. Whenever they smoked out of the window, which was every night, and most of the weekends, it just blew back right into our flat.

The living ‘space’ was just one big L-shaped room. No effort was spared, (literally, no thought given) to thinking of how the configuration of the rooms in our apartment would work next to other rooms in adjoining flats. The main living area was basically a kitchen, dining room and lounge with no walls between them. It became clear that it was not possible for one person to watch tv whilst someone else busied themselves in the kitchen because of the noise of the extractor fan. So it was, that the dishwasher and terribly inconvenient unreliable washer/dryer combo were only switched on if we were retiring to bed or going to work.

To comply with fire regulations, there were heavy self-closing doors in every room. To save energy, all of the communal lights in the stairwells and corridors were motion sensitive and came on automatically. That meant a stalker/burglar could watch you enter the building and see which lights came on so they knew which floor you lived on. A friend showed me how to open our front door by putting his hand through the letterbox and turning the handle from the inside!

It wasn’t one of those horrendous segregated ‘communities’ with a separate ‘poor door’ for social housing residents. No, we all used the same keypad-controlled entrance. However, pressing any four numbers opened the door. I suppose not knowing this glaring flaw gave those residents who were ignorant of this fact, some comfort of the illusion of security. I never ever felt quite safe there.

Every Saturday night we soon learned to put our phones on silent and keep the tv on low. Some of our (dickhead) friends thought we were a convenient free bed and breakfast for when they missed the last bus home. The fun of the pop-in soon wore off, especially when I was the one cleaning up vomit that had almost managed to go in the toilet bowl, but not quite. Finding a condom wrapper and some underwear in the spare bed was the final straw. Our cut-off for phone calls went down from 10pm to about 8pm, and our keenness for hospitality wore thin. Once I even pretended that we were babysitting, and I had just “got her down” so I couldn’t let my unexpected visitors in because it would be too noisy.

We didn’t stay there long. I don’t think many people did. 18th century listed buildings don’t usually come with parking, and with it being in a tourist destination, the long walk from the multi-story was very inconvenient with bags of food shopping. So that was another enforced lifestyle change. Little and often for food shopping.  If residents were moving house that day, they would hog the lift for hours on end, which began to get annoying very quickly. The vibe I was sold and happily bought into wore off quickly. As is the case with so many things in life, the fantasy was better than the truth.

Meters weren’t read, because the electricity people couldn’t get into the building. Parcels frequently went missing. Pizzas never got delivered. New people quickly moved in, and apparently unconcerned about other residents, had loud parties which seemed to include: shouting in the corridors, throwing bags of rubbish down the stairs, setting off the fire alarms, smoking in the stairwells, leaving it reeking of piss, vomit, beer and garbage. It was worse than Freshers Week at a university halls of residence. Eviction notices served, they were gone. It would be quiet for a few weeks then, the cycle of parties would begin again. I suppose with rents being so high, landlords had to risk it, and take who they could get at short notice to cover the mortgage payments.

Maybe if we had been younger or had had friends in the building, it might have been different. I didn’t love loft living. It wasn’t for us, but it would still have been nice to have known some of this before we moved in though. This was a lesson learned. In time.