On Christmas Eve, a cheque arrived from our father so that our mother could get presents. She laughed bitterly and ripped it up.
“But what will we thank him for?” cried my sister.
“Nothing,” said my mother, throwing the pieces into the air.
I admired the gesture. Sure, I’d have preferred my father had driven over with a tree lashed to the roof, but I’d just turned 12 and knew how offputting the 30-mile round trip was, especially with petrol nearly 50p a gallon.
Later, I heard my mother alienating herself on the phone: “Well, we’re not fucking having Christmas this year, so go to hell.” I had no idea who she was talking to – her mother? My father? Dial-a-Disc?
It had been a tough year. We’d moved to a tiny house with nothing on the concrete floors except carpet gripper. Laddered nylon curtains floated about like wind socks, and our mother had to sleep in the lounge. She’d sold the car and was getting about on a third-hand moped. Some months earlier, the East Midlands Electricity Board had cut us off. She hadn’t thought they would, her being a single parent with four children, but they did, leaving her with no option but to approach her boss, Mr Holt, for a sub to pay the bill. Awful as it was, it got them on friendly terms, and he’d given her overtime so she could catch up. When Christmas came around, he offered to convey a tree home for us. He’d bring it over on Christmas Eve, he said.
Our new circumstances didn’t lend themselves to Christmas. There was none of the traditional toiling over glitter and glue, no peppermint creams, and no cake. No trip to the next village to steal holly from MP Nigel Lawson’s garden, no wreath, no paper chains, no policing the advent candle, no church. No fashioning baby Jesuses from a bar of Lux, and the only ornament a potted hyacinth.
We four could have done something homemade or performative to elicit joy, but knew that our mother wasn’t the type. Instead, I reminded her to expect the boss and the tree, at which she brightened and did some hoovering. With nothing better to do ourselves, we settled on the Z-bed that served as a settee in our half of the lounge and watched telly, a thing that on previous years would have been inconceivable. If you think the relentless merriment of festive TV felt hollow or shallow or like taunts to us, then you’ve never endured Christmas presided over by a parent so profoundly tired, lonely and impoverished that the only viable option is to have the shittest time imaginable.
Television was cheerful, diverting and perfect. While my brothers and I watched Dana and the Goodies in pantomime on BBC One, my sister Victoria snuck out and spent her paper round wages on the Radio Times and TV Times. So, not only did we have unlimited access and no seasonal obligations, we now had the complete Christmas listings, and, when the penny dropped, it was like a scene from Dickens as we danced around the little room. The cry that came from the other side of the chipboard partition – ‘Jesus Christ! Turn the fucker down!’ – only validated it. Christmas had begun.
But alas, soon after we’d settled back into Aladdin, the image divided into about 10 lines, which, travelling upwards, took a slice of picture out of sight. “Should we watch the whole thing,” my brother asked, “or a line at a time?”
“Focus on one,” I said, “and when it disappears, start again, at the bottom.”
“No,” said my sister, “it’s best to squint and look slightly away.”
The sound was unaffected and the plot inevitable, and so it was liveable with, until the news came on and the screen went entirely to fuzz, and we felt Christmas slipping away. It was hardest on Vic, obviously, having invested so heavily. We read out what we’d be missing: It’s a Christmas Knockout, A Stocking Full of Stars, André Previn’s Christmas Music Night … and so it went cruelly on.
“Mum! The telly’s broken!” one of us shouted.
“Thank fuck for that,” she called back. And to be fair, we did need the socket – for the tree lights.
Later, I answered the phone. It was the boss man. He hadn’t got the tree, he said, the bloke he’d been banking on had sold out. I told him the television had gone on the blink. He was sorry to hear it. I passed the receiver over and heard him tell my mother he thought they’d probably shot it, tree-wise, but he could try Horse Fair Street, what were her thoughts?
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, stubbing her cigarette out in the hyacinth. Ten minutes later, he was at the front door.
“Weren’t you going to try Horse Fair Street for the tree?” she said.
“I thought I’d better take a look at the television,” he said.
I led him through to our quarters. “Ah, Philips …” he said. “Nice set.”
After telling us to stand back, he had all three channels crystal clear in time for the start of Disney’s Kidnapped, starring one of my mother’s favourite actors.
We didn’t have a tree that year, and we missed Tom & Jerry in The Night Before Christmas, but we watched everything else mentioned above, plus Ice Station Zebra, Way Out West and The Bridge on the River Kwai; us four, Mr Holt and my mother. This year will be their 47th Christmas together.
Nina Stibbe’s new novel One Day I Shall Astonish the World (Viking) is published in April