How did I mourn my mother? With Pet Shop Boys on the radio and plaster dust in my hair

There were no carols, no tree, no goose – but the Christmas I spent decorating my flat gave me the gift of peace

It was on a plank suspended between stepladders over a three-storey stairwell that I finally knew for sure that I was a grownup. I was slimed with wallpaper paste, grizzled with plaster dust, and 28 years old. Pet Shop Boys belted out of the radio and for the first time in my life I was free to spend Christmas doing exactly what I wanted – which was to make a home of the perversely vertical flat my husband and I had bought a year earlier.

I felt almost trippily alive – recklessly so, given the peril our first clumsy steps into home decoration involved. If we wanted to hang 12ft strips of wallpaper from a plank on top of two ladders, there was nobody to stop us. We were in it together, answerable only to ourselves. But for all that we remember it as one of our happiest times, the curious thing about the Christmas of 1987 is that, while we know Pet Shop Boys had the No 1 single, neither of us can remember a thing about what we ate or drank. It probably involved pizza and Indian takeaways, but all I can recall is the smell of sugar soap.

To unscramble this scene, you have to scroll back 10 years. I was in my first term at university when a letter arrived, addressed in my father’s spidery handwriting and imparting the news that my mother was in hospital. There was nothing to worry about, she was doing well, but she’d just had an operation to remove her left breast. Could I please let my younger brother know?

My parents were of a class and a generation that didn’t believe in oversharing their troubles. Neither had been to university and they took a vicarious pleasure in their idea of a carefree student life. My father built me a bicycle, which was promptly stolen. My mother came to stay – illegally – with our pet parrot, who shouted loudly for attention but so charmed the cleaning staff that nobody dobbed us in. Then another letter arrived: Mum was back in hospital because the cancer had spread to her right breast.

If I had wanted to run off to a desert island, my parents would never have held me back, but they were hospitable and fun, and to miss Christmas seemed unthinkable. The cheesy Tijuana jazz of Herb Alpert mingled with carols from King’s College, Cambridge, as we shimmied seamlessly from one meal to another. Fudge and sloe gin were always to hand. Even the crackers were stuffed with a little extra something. After university, I moved to south Wales to train as a journalist but always rushed home to Sussex in time to decorate the tree, often with friends in tow.

Then my father’s health began to fail. After Mum and Dad both ended up having major operations in the same week of 1982, but in different cities, my brother and I had to manage their convalescence in shifts, with the help of kind friends who had been drawn into our family circle by my parents’ hospitality. The balance of care had shifted. Returning home became a duty as well as a choice, nostalgia crept up on pleasure and learning to cook a goose my mother’s way became a matter of urgency.

When my boyfriend and I decided to get married, my parents’ gift was the deposit for a flat. I knew Mum wanted to see us settled, but it was a race to find one in time. As we hauled our possessions up the stairs one snowy February morning in London, 60 miles away in Sussex my mother’s pelvis collapsed. She never did see the flat because in the summer of 1987 she died.

Three months later, the stock market crashed and a great storm brought chaos to the streets, uprooting most of the trees in our local park and making the roads to my parents’ home briefly impassable. In the solipsism of grief, it was as if the stars had aligned to mark my loss and the world was howling along with me. But just as I was starting to wonder if anything was ever going to be normal again, a miracle happened: my father was invited to spend Christmas with some old friends in Jamaica. For the first time ever at this time of year, I would be carefree, unparented.

Every culture has its mourning rituals, and I’ve always loved the Caribbean tradition of the “nine-nights” – a period of hanging out, swapping songs and stories while everyone waits for the soul of the dead to pass over. It feels like something I imbibed during my cosmopolitan early childhood in Nigeria but, looking back, I realise it belongs to the hectic months surrounding my mother’s death when everything was heightened and I reviewed a play about it at the Albany Empire in Deptford, south London. It must have struck a specially resonant chord with me because I had rushed back to work, leaving me no time to sit with the memories, reclaim the happy times, make peace with the sad ones and find my adult self in them.

Those 12 days up a ladder delivered me to the other side. There were no carols, no Christmas tree and no goose, just dirt and gloop and soggy wallpaper offcuts. Out of them came beautiful blank walls, on which we would paint our own colours, our own traditions. I would never make fudge, and life is definitely too short to stuff a cracker. Music would always feature, but no more carols from King’s.

The soundtrack for this deliverance was a song my parents would undoubtedly have known and may have loved, reanimated by a band they would never have heard and probably wouldn’t have liked even if they had. It was tradition reclaimed and remodelled, in a defiantly self-indulgent ballad about coming to terms with the conflicting emotions of love and loss: You Were Always on My Mind. I can only thank the ghost of Christmas past that it didn’t all happen a year later, landing us with Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe and Wine.


Claire Armitstead

The GuardianTramp

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