Let me start with a story…
There was once a Roman emperor who got captured in battle. His enemy decided not to kill the emperor, as he generally liked to do with his prisoners, but instead to use him as a footstool. Yes, a footstool. So our Roman emperor spent the rest of his life on his hands and knees, being used as a step to mount a horse, or as the extension to a chair, or whatever else his enemy needed a footstool to do. But not as a Roman emperor. (The end.)
Now if I was a different kind of person I would have painted a better and more exciting picture about the emperor-part of the Roman’s life, but the truth is that bit of the story doesn’t really interest me. I’m not thinking about the might of Rome. The rich historical backdrop. The glories of an empire. But a great man who is reduced to nothing – a man who becomes not even a chair, or a throne, but something as small and ordinary as a footstool – there you have me. I want to know more about that person. I want to know more about the footstool he was forced to become.
This is why I like short stories. They take the small and they blow it up to make it large. They use the ordinary, everyday kind of moments to show what is universal and brave.
And, of course, Christmas – well, for some of us it’s a crazy time of trying to be anything BUT ordinary. We stop work. Stuff our houses with food. Bind anything vaguely static in lights that flash and leap and have at least different zippy settings. We spend money we haven’t got. Travel miles to spend time with family members we may spend the rest of the year trying to avoid..(though the truth is that I also love all this. I still get butterflies about decorating the tree, just as I did when I was small. Note the photograph. How happy I am. Also note the advent calendar, swinging perilously close to my joyful head. And the white lacy dress that I adored which was a hand-me down from Italian Maria up the road, whose mother bought her white lacy dresses with sticky-out skirts. My parents preferred more sensible outfits, which I see now were very trendy but at the time seemed to be a) itchy, b) green and c) straight. )
Yes, we exhaust ourselves with doing Christmas perfectly and then wonder why we are all full of cold in January and desperate to detoxify.
So there is a tension. That is what I am saying. A mad tension – and I have exaggerated here, of course. But this is where stories get interesting. It’s the opposite of the Roman emperor becoming a footstool. Messy, ordinary people trying to be perfect – trying to be something they are not – well, it’s rich pickings.
Shortly after writing this collection, I was asked by a very nice journalist what they were about. I told him I hadn’t a clue. I felt stupid and wretched for saying that – but at the time it was the truth and I was doing my best to be truthful. Whatever I was trying to say was the story: I couldn’t see beyond that. But now time has passed, I see they are about the interconnectedness of small, broken-off things. A man could walk past you on the way to the shops and be a complete stranger. But equally he could stop and ask you something and a connection might be made that could last the rest of your life.
All this in a moment..Like the moment the emperor heard he had to be a footstool.
Do you think he asked for tassels?
In order to write these stories, I thought a lot about my own Christmases. I thought about the way we do it now with our children, and how it was for me when I was small. I thought about the ritual or the myth that we recreate every year, and pass on, and why we do that. And one of the Christmases I thought about most was the one it snowed in 1970.
There are things in our house that I would say my family loves to see at Christmas. There is a beautiful slim angel a friend made years ago, whose body is a toilet roll. There are some felt decorations I made when the children were little, along with their Christmas stockings – just as my father did for my sisters and me. There is a sign that says ‘Santa this way’ and endless small pottery figures that my children have made over the years that could be donkeys, perhaps cats and possibly cows (one has three legs.) I pull out a box every year with all these small things wrapped in tissue and we coo over them as if we have never seen them before. My children say, ‘Oh remember this! Look at this!’ I string up lights in corners that are dark, I bring in evergreens. I wrap little gifts in coloured tissue paper and wait up until my children are asleep – past midnight last year – before I fill the stockings they have hung on their doors. My husband prepares exactly the same food that we all ate last Christmas. I make the same biscuits I made the children when they first had teeth. And it is as if we are giving back to our family something they had lost.
There were things about Christmas that sent me inside out with excitement when I was a child – one of them being the shop windows on Oxford Street and Regent Street, along with the lights. We would take the bus ‘up’ to London (we were only coming from West Norwood) on a Sunday when the shops were closed, and we would walk from Selfridges, past John Lewis, then along to Liberty and Hamleys. After that we’d take the bus back to Trafalgar Square to see the column-tall tree that was a gift from Norway, and the crib scene.
I loved Christmas so much that I wrote a play every year and insisted that my sisters began rehearsing it in October. It normally involved songs (written by me), Christmas messages (written by me) and Nativity characters (played not by me.) My sisters and a few friends had to cover between them a cast of about thirty but since my sisters were only one and four, and the friends were often busy, rehearsals fell apart round about November. The Christmas play, when it took place, was a cobbled-together affair.
And why did I love it so much? When I look at family photos, I see that our tree was really quite a scrawny thing – no Norwegian spruce. Our dad had made all the decorations, along with our stockings – out of red and blue felt, which he then decorated with sequins. My mum made mince pies every Christmas Eve and wept into them whilst listening to Carols from Kings on the radio, just as her mother had done when she was a child. She stuffed the turkey with two different mixtures – one at each end – and got up at two in the morning to put the turkey in the oven, and every year it was cooked by about breakfast time. Sometimes we spent it in Devon with friends, and our neighbour did an indoor fireworks display that consisted of lots of tiny lumps of sulphur that gave a tiny pffizzle, and emitted a smell of fart, and then blew out.
But bigger than all of this was Father Christmas. I wrote to him every Christmas Eve and my letters were full of love and gratitude. If the world was big enough to contain this good, kind man who delivered presents to EVERY CHILD in one night, then it stood to reason this was a good, kind world. It was the best story of all, the most precious ritual. No wonder I loved Christmas.
But in 1969 I found out the truth. We were on holiday in Cornwall and I was skipping. Why it occurred to me to question the true identity of Father Christmas as I skipped, I don’t know. Maybe it was because we were on holiday and it was summer and if you are going to start having doubts about Christmas, at least you have time to recover.
I marched into the house where we were staying and said to my parents, ‘Is he real?’
They told me the truth on the spot, on condition that I didn’t go spoiling it for my sisters. I was hoping for a bit more hesitation.
But having asked my parents the big question about FC, I went back and quizzed them about the tooth fairies – about whom I had already had doubts, mostly on account of the fact they frequently forgot to visit and then wrote racked notes of apology that looked like tiny versions of my mum’s shopping lists. And of course, after I found out the truth about the fairies – this was a double blow – I felt compelled to ask about the Loch Ness Monster, the Easter bunnies, and Jesus. My father had never liked the whole Easter bunny thing so he was quick to kill that one off. They exchanged a vacant look on the subject of the Loch Ness Monster, and said that as far as Jesus was concerned, it was entirely up to me.
It was devastating. It wasn’t just about the presents. It was the fact that life was not all good and not all safe. If the world was good and kind, it was only because my parents had made it so and even at seven I was aware that couldn’t last for ever, that I must grow older and see things differently, and the size of their shoulders would not always be big enough to hide me.
That Christmas Eve I wrote my letter to Father Christmas, but it was an altogether more self-conscious effort. I watched my sisters, so excited, and it was a lonely thing, to know the truth. And then that night, the sky went and did the magical thing it never does. It snowed.
So this photograph is me, in 1970, knowing the truth about Father Christmas, and in a bigger sense, the world. It is not a good, magical place after all. There is no kind man who flies through the sky and gives a present to every child, regardless of race or class or religion. There is dissent, there is poverty, there is cruelty, and sometimes, yes, it seems to make no sense. In the photograph, I am wearing my new Christmas hat and scarf. (No woolly tights, I am pleased to see.) But look. I am at the front, whizzing down a hill, my sister behind me, my father at the back. I know now that the story about Christmas is just that – a story, one that we will repeat year after year, because in telling it over and over, we are reminded of the things in life that, like the passing of the seasons, will always return, and we celebrate the sameness of the smallest things.
But look at that photo.
Wooden sledge. Snowy hill. God only knows what at the bottom. Me leading the way; my father and sister laughing at the thrill of it.
How joyful life is.