A Christmas with a Difference


A solitary child, I watched from the front window, looking down the long path to the front gate where in the dark a magical taxi would appear, to carry us off to Christmas. Mum and Dad carried bags, phoned the Guards to tell them the house would be empty, and fussed over other last minute adult concerns, but it was my job to watch, and then to shout ‘it’s here!’ when the dark car slid into place. Then a long drive through the sleeping city and out to Collinstown, where my name was never called to ‘pick up the nearest red telephone’. We were soon in Speke airport, waiting for our luggage to arrive in trucks with sides like fences. I knew my presents were in there, but as an only child, had an adult ability to fake innocence. I didn’t believe in Santa, having worked it out when I was just four, but Santa only filled stockings in our family, so it was easy to cast a blind eye. Then a bus into town, to the station, where our bags were put into the left luggage so that we could go shopping. It was always Christmas in Liverpool, the lights were up and it was always satisfactorily frosty. My mother delighted in the wider choices that were available in her native country, and Dad and I stood obediently in many shops while she swooped on the goodies, coming back to us with bulging bags.
          In the afternoon we struggled back to Lime Street Station and climbed onto the Ribble bus to Clayton-le-Woods. I loved the bus journeys. People struggled onto the bus out of the black and were greeted by the conductor with loud cries of “’Ullo love”, and helpful comments about everything that happened. I came from a small but anonymous city and revelled in the temporary community that developed on that bus, changing as each passenger alighted, followed into the murk by shouts of ‘Ta-ra, love!’. If it was quiet on the bus, and we were passing through one of the many built-up areas – that part of Lancashire having almost no real countryside- I looked out and into all the good front rooms. Most of these had bay windows, and there was a tree in each one, lit up in multicolours – no subtle monochrome decorations back then – so that every road was ready for Christmas.
          I watched out every year for the tell-tale chimney that would let me know it was our stop, but I never saw it until we got off the bus, followed by cheery goodbyes and the thump of cases. Then there it was, a disused factory chimney now bearing the neon words ‘Leyland Paints’, shining out over our village. We had to walk about fifty yards to my grandparents’ house, through air full of ice crystals and the comforting smell of coal firesThe gate squeaked and clanked and we were in the porch in four paces. I never saw that front door shut, even on the coldest days. I was always at the front, having no luggage to hold me back, so it was I who opened the inner glass-panelled door and gave the call- ‘Ullo!’ as I ran along the tiny hall and into the cosy back room, where ‘Moremummy’, flushed from excitement, would have been watching the clock for the last four hours. We were swept up into a flurry of hugs and questions, punctuated with ‘sensible’ comments from Grandad, who was one of the world’s pourers of cold water. We had tea, a meal we never had at home, dinner having taken its place when I was a small child too excited by my day in school to concentrate on eating at midday, but which I loved, delighting in the strange juxtaposition of tinned salmon or pork pie with cake or iced buns, or sometimes even jelly. Then I was put to bed, in pyjamas I had been allowed to warm in the slow oven over the fireplace. This was an idea that one would think belonged more to our recycling age, but which had been thought up in the 1920s or earlier, allowing the fire which warmed the room to slowly cook the dinner, and at Christmas, to dry out mandarin peels to be used as kindling, which filled the house with the scent of oranges.
          The next day the visits began. There were twelve ‘second cousins’ all around my age, and my mother, also an only child, had six cousins. Different ones shared Christmas Day with us each year, as the other sides of the family had to be appeased, so shopping trips were interspersed with visits to cheerful and excited houses where I could rush about with the others, nag for mince pies, and pretend to get up to mischief. I only pretended, because as an ‘only’ I was used to getting the blame for all that was wrong, and I wasn’t accustomed to the casual ‘not me!’ that my cousins employed, usually with success. Louise was my favourite. She was a year older than me, the granddaughter of my Grandad’s younger brother ‘Uncle Reg’. She was full of ideas and schemes, and was delighted by our visits as her two brothers were ‘unbelievably boring’. I didn’t agree, I thought they were fun, but then I didn’t have to put up with them all year round, only for a week at Christmas, and occasionally for summer breaks. Another boy, Walter, was the cutest, because when I was a small child he was a baby, and I loved watching his attempts to keep up with the rest of us. His Grandma was my ‘Auntie’, who was actually my mother’s Auntie Annie, my Moremummy’s sister. He was called what we considered the unfortunate name of Walter – he was mostly known as Wall- because it was a family name from an ancestor called Ann Walters. I’m not sure exactly what Ann Walters had done, but it had impressed those who knew her. Moremummy and Auntie’s younger brother had been called Walter, but had died of scarlet fever aged four. This is probably why Wall’s older brother was called Peter – it took Auntie that long to get over the superstition
          Christmas Day was busy. I remember best the years when we visited Uncle Reg’s. He had the biggest house, so those years we went on Christmas Eve and stayed the night. There were at least six, sometimes ten of us kids packed into the big spare room that had two double beds. I had heard of poor children having to share a bed, but this was a treat. To cuddle down with Louise, Melanie, Hilary, and little Jackie, and call across to the boys in the other bed, keeping ourselves awake so that Santa would barely have time to visit, was the greatest fun. And from downstairs, if we were quiet ever for an instant, we could hear the adults getting very happy on egg-nog. Then we were awake by four and the room was a cloud of tissue paper as we opened our stockings. Usually the boys got something noisy or that could shoot, (this was before political correctness) and we would be involved in happy warfare and the air was full of Opal Mints and Spangles when one of the mums would open the door and say ‘Come on, church!’.
          Church was fun too, because of the carols, and having people to whisper to, and when we got back the table was laid and there were crackers, and Dandelion-and-Burdock and Vimto, better than any wine, and Moremummy was getting pink on her one glass of sherry and wearing her paper hat at a rakish angle, while Grandad and Great Uncle Reg, and Great Uncle Cecil, if it was their year to be with us, were in a corner full of pipe smoke agreeing that the world was going to hell in a handcart and having another whiskey. Auntie would be trying to control the children – they said she could have been a great headmistress- and they were ignoring her, so she got pinker and more wobbly. And the pudding was brought in flaming, usually by Louise’s mum, who smoked so had a lighter and was not afraid of fire, until one year she held the plate too high and set her paper crown alight.
          After dinner there were the presents, and happy chaos reigned around the big tree, as the children handed out gifts in such disorder that no one ever knew what was from who, and Auntie Annie tried to keep track but always failed. Games were opened and the dice lost, Meccano was built, with Dads saying, ‘be careful of the screws, don’t lose them’, while ‘don’t kneel on them’ would have been a better warning, and eventually one of the mums, or grans, would announce that she would die of thirst unless someone made a pot of tea, and there would be a rush to the kitchen. A few years, there was snow, and Christmas Day ended with a snowball fight, and the attempt to make a snow-reindeer. We tumbled back into the big beds and were asleep in moments.
          All of which is a wonderful childhood memory. With one small problem. It is not all true. I was brought to England for my childhood Christmases, and my pyjamas were warmed above the fire. I did get pork pie and Dandelion-and-Burdock, and Moremummy did go pink on one glass of sherry. There was snow, but it remained where the clouds had let it fall. I was the only child for our Christmas celebrations, which were as staid as in an Old Folks’ Home. I opened my stocking with Mum, in her bed, after looking at it and squeezing it for hours from four a.m., never telling her I knew the truth about Santa as I knew it would upset her. I never lost part of a toy, with five adults keeping their eye on me.
          Auntie was the headmistress of a Primary School, one of my childhood highlights was being brought with her to the last day of term and being allowed to give out the little bottles of milk that all English schoolchildren received at break time in those days.
          And why was Auntie a headmistress? Because her fiancé Cecil was a soldier, and ‘did his duty for King and Country’. Unfortunately this involved being mown down somewhere in France.
          Great Uncle Reg, my Grandad’s adored baby brother, was likewise killed, in 1915. I have read his last letter home, interestingly it was to ‘My Dear Phoebe’, who was my Moremummy. Reg was too young to have found a girlfriend of his own, and got some solace from writing to his brother’s fiancée. The letter from the Chaplain, telling of Reg’s death, was found with Moremummy’s things. I think it was too hard for Grandad to bear.
          My grandfather survived only because he was older, so not accepted by the Recruiting Officer in the early years of the war. His perfectly good health was classified as C3. He tried to sign up again later in the war, when the officer said ‘A1, go and run after Jerry!’ My granddad replied ‘I want my trade’, and as result was put into the Royal Engineers and sent to Russia. And those four words- I want my trade- are the only reason my mother or I ever existed.
          My mother’s cousins were never born, nor were Louise, Melanie, Hilary, Jackie, Peter, or little Wall.
          And I was a very only child.

©Madeline Ann Stringer                     October 2021
Dublin Unitarian Church