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The ghost of Christmas past

By Paul McKay

Christmas 1970 –Somewhere in deepest Essex

As a 10-year-old, I had long since figured out my parents’ lies about Santa Claus, partly due to my father tripping on the stairs two years earlier and cursing in a manner and an accent that was far removed from what I’d been led to expect from Santa. Besides, rumours at school had been circulating like wildfire and not even Mrs Cross, the RE teacher had had the valour to try to correct them.

My brother, on the other hand, three years younger than me and a little naive, was still a fervent believer and, despite promises to my parents, I was on a one-boy mission to shatter his innocent childhood fantasies of reindeers, elves and have a go at the tooth fairy while I was at it.

As the big day approached in the McKay household, mother would get increasingly tense at the imminent arrival of her own mother – Big Elsie. Big Elsie liked to take control of the whole proceedings from a leatherette armchair in the lounge, surrounded by bowls of Quality Street, Clementine’s and within easy reach of an ashtray that she seldom bothered using.

As she hollered instructions through the serving hatch (remember those?) my brother and I were instantly transformed into serfs, whose sole mission in life was to relay back and forth to the kitchen with cups of tea and pass on instructions as to pudding preparation, turkey stuffing and the like.

As I recall, the big day went as well as could be expected. Little brother was finally on side, after having spent the previous week searching the house for hidden presents and the last 24 hours gawping up at the sky hoping for the slightest glimmer of a sleigh. The arrival of Santa on the back of a lorry, surrounded by choirboys at the street door the night before hadn’t done much to convince him, on account of Santa bearing more than a passing resemblance to Mr Jones, who ran the local cub group; a man to be locked up two years later for a misdemeanour that was never discussed in front of us children.

As to my brother’s belief, I think the paisley dressing gown he received from Santa on Christmas Day was the final nail in the great man’s coffin.

The meal as I recall (these things aren’t important to a 10-year-old) was good, although Big Elsie wasn’t present. After a furious row with my father, who told her to stop interfering, she had insisted on being taken home on Christmas morning, my father was only too happy to oblige. As St Winifreds Choir belted out Away in a Manger on the telly, she was bundled into the van and whisked off to spend Christmas with her other daughter, Little Else, who still hasn’t forgiven my mother to this day.

Christmas 1984 – Somewhere in ‘politically correct’ south London

I had been living with Martyn for a year, gone through the trauma of ‘coming out’ to people who all reckoned they knew anyway (I wish they’d told me) and we were looking forward to our first ‘grown-up’ Christmas together.

Martyn worked in the local showroom of the London Electricity Board. These were the good old days, when the board was run for the employees and the customers were an inconvenience, who were to be tolerated at best, abused at worst.

As Martyn had a heavy day of drinking planned for Christmas Eve at work, it was left to me to trundle around the local shops to buy the food ready for the big day. Car-less and in possession of a daunting list, I set off, braced for the worst.

After following tedious instructions of what to purchase where (eggs from the market, turkey from Bejam, fruit from Presto and so on) I exited Sainsbury’s with a trolley loaded to the top. En-route, it quickly became apparent that south London pavements are not compatible with supermarket trolley wheels and, after a couple of near misses with dog turds (pre-shovel it up movement) the trolley spun out of control and ended up on its side in the Balham High Road. As the number 88 flew past missing my custard creams by a whisker, I looked around for help at the merry band of Christmas shoppers. It quickly became apparent that I was invisible. After 20 minutes or so of unloading the trolley, reloading the trolley and assaulting Sainsbury’s property, I was finally on the road again and squeaked my way home.

The big day arrived, a little later than usual (11ish) and in something of a blur after the night before. At 11.30am, Martyn realised the turkey was still frozen. Against all health advice, it was positioned under the hot tap and the ascot began its monotonous roar that was to last another couple of hours. While Martyn pottered around the kitchen, I made myself busy, putting away socks, organising ties, tidying aftershaves and so on. I was a little perturbed to notice the boxed carving knife I received from Uncle Dougie had a bit of meat on the blade, but never mind, it’s the thought that counts.

While contemplating what to do with the hand knitted jumper that reached my knees, I was interrupted by a yell from the kitchen. Always eager to please, I dashed in to be confronted by the angry chef, demanding to know where I had put the potatoes. Always ready to lie myself out of a corner, I said they were not on the list, only to watch chef dive into the bin bag, emerge covered in brussell and carrot peelings clutching a gravy sodden list. Against all the odds, there was the word potatoes as bold as brass in front of me.

I toddled across the road to Mr Khan’s, wished him a merry Christmas and was treated to an unintelligible grunt in reply. Mr Khan’s prices appeared to be even more extortionate than usual and the potatoes would have been ideal for planting. On my way out he asked me if I wanted to buy some yoghurt on special offer. Upon inspection, he had reduced each carton from a staggering 25p, to 23p because they were a week out of date. When I pointed out the date issue, he muttered something under his breath about people being too fussy.

The ‘romantic candlelit’ first Christmas together ended up with the meal being served at seven at night under the fluorescent light in the kitchen, with neither of us having the stomach to eat more than a couple of mouthfuls – ahhh happy days.

Christmas 1989 – Somewhere in the magic mountain – Monchique

The week running up to Christmas was a revelation to us in that, at that time, Portugal was not obsessed with Christmas as a marketing tool, unlike so much of Western Europe. Street lights had only just started going up, most shops didn’t bother with lights or decorations and, as for home owners, people had more important things to worry about.

We had moved into our humble little home in the hills six months earlier. Upon arrival we had mice in the back room, rats in the roof, no running water, no electricity and no loo. By Christmas, three cats had sorted out the rodents, a camping loo had been positioned in the barn door with a stunning view down the valley (the reverse cannot be said to be true) and we had running water in the form of a hosepipe outside the front door.

I snapped the top off a pine tree while out for a walk, the fruit bowl was full of oranges and we were set for the festive season. Having not yet ventured into the farming side of things, most of our meal was purchased in local shops and markets and, gleaming in our kitchen, was a brand new gas cooker. For the very first time in our lives we ate Christmas dinner al fresco. In all honesty, I’m glad things have moved on a little, but that doesn’t detract from our enjoyable very first Christmas in the Algarve.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Paul McKay can be contacted via e-mail at [email protected]