In which The Author is visited by the Ghost of Xmas Past
Here’s an interesting fact: since I started this blog nearly six years ago, I think the title of this entry is the first time I’ve spelt the C— word out in full. About ten years ago, Xmas became a four-letter word for me, and the past five or six years have reinforced my feelings on the subject.
It wasn’t always like this, mind you. Xmas Eve, in particular, used to be a fun evening. It was the one occasion where we caught up with all our relatives (except for the branches of the family in London, Kent and Carmarthen, of course.)
The odd thing is this: because we did it every year, it’s difficult to pick individual events out from the blur of memories which the intervening decades have scrambled. This year, particularly, I’ve found myself regretting more and more that I didn’t keep a diary when I was younger. As my fiftieth birthday approaches, my childhood is becoming increasingly difficult to recall (see Memory Dump
.) Memories, like radioactive materials, seem to possess a half-life, decaying unpredictably over time. My family is also dwindling. I’ll soon be left with very little of my childhood to get a real handle on.
Anyway, our Xmas Eve visits started fairly early in the evening, when we all jumped into the car and headed to Hirwaun. We’d pack everyone’s presents into the boot and make our first call at 96 Langland Close, Auntie Jean’s house. Uncle Arthur had passed away when I was in junior school, so I have precious few memories of him.
Dawn would usually be there as well, and we’d have cake and squash and maybe play a board game while the grown-ups chatted. The TV would be on as well, and we might be lucky enough to catch some of the Crackerjack Xmas special if we got there in time. This was the kids’ equivalent of the Morecambe and Wise spectacular, with special guests galore taking part in the epic sketch at the end of the show.
The next stop was 64 The Beacons, a couple of minutes’ walk away, where Mams and Dads lived. The Towers and The Beacons were the twin tower blocks which dominated the village skyline when we were kids, as I described in my other blog Going Up in the World
. Their living room on the sixth floor had a fantastic view across the village and towards the Brecon Beacons, but one thing really sticks in my mind from these midwinter visits. The wind would howl around the corners of the building, and there would be a ghostly moaning in the lift shaft when we were travelling up. I’ve never been a great fan of lifts (which wasn’t helped by watching the film Speed
many years later), and I think my fear is rooted in that unearthly sound.
Dads passed away when I was about twelve, so I’ve got rather more memories of him, sitting in his armchair near the window and with his pipe in hand. The living room would be festooned what appeared to be a couple of hundred cards, seemingly from everyone in the village. In fact, they probably were – when the old part of Hirwaun had been cleared, Mams and Dads, along with all their neighbours, moved to the new flats.
In 1966, a close-knit community on the ground had become a close-knit community in the sky. Consequently, the cards from Mams’ and Dads’ neighbours would be three-deep on the sideboard, perched on top of the TV, strung between the pictures on all four walls, and pinned up in the hallway as well. While we were there, at least another two neighbours would call, and soon we’d be all crammed into the living room. Rare special dispensation would be given for us to play in the best room and more cake and squash would be provided (is it any wonder we didn’t sleep on Xmas night? We must have been on one hell of a sugar rush!) while presents were exchanged and the grown-ups chatted again.
Mams would always manage to find Xmas cards suitable for kids – anthropomorphic bears playing football or something similar – and somehow managed to keep that tradition alive until I was well into my thirties. (She was remarkably trusting as well, tucking a banknote inside my card before posting it with just an ordinary stamp.)
From here, the next item on the agenda was Paul and Gaynor’s place. I say ‘place’, because for a couple of years they kept a shop in Hirwaun and lived in the flat above. After a while they decided to reshape the business into a fish and chip shop, and it was a huge success, enabling them to move to a large house at the southern end of the village. Justin, our cousin, was a couple of years younger than me, so once again we were plied with sugar and played together while the grown-ups talked.
Gaynor loved entertaining, and would have a huge spread laid on for visitors. Once again, more visitors would call while we were there, and eventually things would get a bit rowdy. After a while, we’d make our excuses and leave – after all, we hadn’t even started on Dad’s side of the family yet.
Dad’s brother Pat had three daughters, all older than me (which is why I need to get my bloody skates on if the family name is going to survive into the next generation!) The first of the girls to marry was Diana, and she and her husband Gwyn were living in Cwmdare. Their house was always next on the list, because Ceri (their oldest daughter) was a couple of years younger than me.
Ceri and I used to fight like cat and dog when we were younger, and she was glad when her younger siblings – two sisters and a brother – came along to even the scores slightly. I remember that she had a huge teddy bear (much bigger than her) and one year I managed to shut the pair of them in the wardrobe. Our love-hate relationship lasted well into our thirties, after which we became firm friends. (Ceri’s memory of our annual battles seems to be rather different from mine. When Ceri’s daughter Kayleigh was about seven years old, she asked Ceri, ‘Can I beat Steve up, like you used to?’) Think about it, though. With all that sugar inside us, is it any wonder we were fucking mental by that stage of the evening?
From their house, we would make our way to a bungalow at the very top of Llwydcoed, where my cousin Christine and her husband Peter would be preparing for their Xmas Day visitors. Their daughters Katie and Aimee were (and still are) quite a bit younger than me, so we always tried to get there before their bedtime. Katie and I had a boozy evening in Aberdare a few months ago. I haven’t seen Aimee for ages. (Katie’s just texted me, in fact. I wonder if we’ll catch up again over the holidays.)
Our last call was always to Uncle Pat and Auntie Vilda in Cemetery Road, not far from where we lived in Trecynon. When we were young, our third cousin Denise would be there, but eventually she too got married and moved out. After the chaos of Cwmdare and Llwydcoed, this was always a fairly sedate affair. We’d be on a comedown from our sugar high, and the only random element would be Pat’s and Vilda’s crazy dogs. In fact, they had a succession of crazy dogs over the years: I remember a few of them, from Bilbo the Black Labrador who once tried ice-skating on Aberdare Park Lake, right through to the black miniature poodle who used to play hell with Pat towards the end of his life. From there, we made our way home with our assorted packages from every call, and put them under the tree in time for the following morning.
When we were older, Dad’s side of the family established another Xmas tradition whereby we’d all turn up at Cemetery Road on Boxing Day afternoon. And I mean all of us: me, Diana, Gwyn, the kids, their partners, and the grandkids; Chris and the girls; Denise, Clive and the boys… Throw an insane poodle into the mix and you’ve got a perfect recipe for chaos.
One daft incident stands out in my mind. By the end, Pat was pretty much confined to the house with respiratory problems, and needed frequent blasts of oxygen to help him breathe. For obvious reasons, all the smokers were exiled to the kitchen and/or garden. They had an intercom linking the living room and kitchen, and the poodle had managed to sneak into the living room when nobody was looking. Out of the blue, Pat’s tinny voice issued from the intercom: ‘Can somebody get this fucking dog off my head?’
It’s Xmas Eve now, and it’s sad to think that our lovely tradition of family visits finished a long time ago. Our own family ended abruptly over Xmas 1984, when Mother and Dad announced that they were splitting up. For a couple of years before that, I’d established my own routine of taking our dog Sacha for a walk on the Sunday morning before Xmas and delivering the local family cards by hand – starting with our neighbours in Trecynon, then walking up to Llwydcoed, across to Cwmdare, and back. (Mother was working in Hirwaun, so she took care of her side of the family.) By the time I was eighteen, Sacha was too old to accompany me, so it fizzled out. By the time I was twenty, ‘doing the rounds’ had vanished into our families’ shared history.
After that, I spent a long time in the book trade, working most Xmas Eves, so I was rarely back in town before seven o’clock. By then, it was too late to bother going for a pint, so I established my own tradition of picking up a mushroom omelette from the Pagoda before locking the front door and watching a DVD.
The family Xmas gatherings are long past. Uncle Arthur, Dads, Mams, Pat, Vilda, and Dad are no longer with us. Auntie Jean hasn’t bothered speaking to us since Mams’ funeral. Paul and Gaynor moved to Brecon years ago. Justin was living in America, the last I heard. I saw Dawn in town a few weeks ago. She walked straight past me.
Diana and Gwyn are still living in Cwmdare, but their children are all married with families of their own (and Ceri has three granddaughters with embarrassing made-up pop star-type names.) Christine is remarried and living in Cardiff, where Katie and Aimee have settled as well. Denise and Clive’s children are adults as well now. I haven’t seen them for ages.
This is the first Xmas for about five years when I haven’t been too ill to go out, or the weather hasn’t intervened as it did in spectacular fashion in 2009. (Mind you, we had localized flooding in Aberdare yesterday, and there was a terrific clap of thunder earlier. I’m ruling nothing out at this stage.)
I don’t see the point of Xmas any more. I haven’t seen the point of it for a long time. When I was working in Cardiff, I was lucky to get two days off in a row – and the second was only guaranteed because there’s no public transport on Boxing Day. My family is scattered across the country, my close friends are all married and/or living away, and I can’t afford a ‘Turkey and Tinsel’ break in a hotel. (As a vegetarian, I’d have to find somewhere that wasn’t doing turkey anyway.) Not even this brief visit from the Ghost of Xmas Past has offered me any consolation. I am the Ghost of Humbugs Yet To Come.