So eventually we got here, the car packed with cat and dog and niece who needed a lift, gifts and galoshes, thermoses of coffee and orange-scented hot chocolate, sharp knives and soft blankets, bottles of port and jars of mincemeat, driving north through the snow and sleet with heating and Christmas carols on full blast.
We took a detour on our 300 mile journey to collect our Essex bird, that most important of Christmas guests. In the pre-Christmas frenzy to meet work deadlines, the one deadline I missed was the last mail order date for the turkey from Kelly Bronze. Years ago, I did a telephone interview with Paul Kelly for a magazine. After 20 minutes, I knew more about turkeys than I did about some members of my family. He was the perfect interviewee – passionate, informed, funny – and writing up the piece was a doddle. The next day, the picture editor rang. She asked, ‘Paul Kelly, did you interview him in person or over the phone?’ Oh God, I thought, the pictures have come in, he looks like Essex’s own Gollum and they won’t run the piece. ‘Erm, no, it was over the phone.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I’m looking at the pictures now and I’m telling you, he’s the George Clooney of turkeys’.
The turkey collected from TGCOT has been devoured by a happy crowd, leftovers turned into pasta sauce and the bones into stock. Mountains of wrapping paper, so carefully and fleetingly folded around books and sweaters and bottles of scent, have been concertina’d into the recycling bin. The Christmas cake is down to its last, ragged slices.
I wanted a picture of my grandmother in her nurse’s uniform. This afternoon, mum and I hauled out boxes of old photographs and sat by the study fire going through them. A picture of my great grandfather, darkly handsome with his waxed moustache, stout great aunts in their Sunday best, my grandfather, smiling, in tennis whites, my parents looking impossibly young cutting their wedding cake, my mother in her fur-collared leather coat with me, a symphony to the 70s in a brightly coloured kilt and horizontal striped jumper, my brother with his first, miraculous, salmon, longer than his own arm. Time passing in the length of a hem, the curl of a fringe, the narrowing of a collar. Decades apart, a familiar curve of a brow or tilt of a nose, the same strong hands.
Sometimes, it’s the unpresents that are the best. My mother is more likely to cook up a good story than she is a cake. She cleared out a whole cupboard of glass cake plates, jugs and butter dishes and gave them to me in a big, glittering pile. Years ago, with two young children to care for, an old house to furnish and little money, my parents used to frequent the local auction house, where a book case might come complete with the previous owner’s Penguin classics, a sofa as a job lot with a box of china. These plates and jugs have graced tea tables not our own and have been hidden away for 30 years. I’m looking forward to giving them a brand new life in the big city.
I hope you shared some old stories this Christmas, and made some new ones too. My great grandfather sent my great grandmother hundreds of postcards from France during the First World War. He always signed off in the same way. ‘I hope this finds you as it leaves me, in the pink.’ And I do. And I am.