Because this homework was be presented to the group in November, on our last meeting of the year, we were asked to write something on the theme of Christmas. So I wrote this piece it's not a story. If it's anything, it's an article even though it looks superficially like a story. After all, it's got dialogue and everything! But it isn't fiction. Apart from the bit with the atom bomb, I haven't made a single thing up. Everything reported here is the plain, simple, unvarnished and unexaggerated truth.
On Christmas Eve, as a special treat, my parents always allowed me to stay up late. Clearly they hoped that when I finally went to bed I'd be so tired that I would quickly fall asleep. But I was always so excited by the anticipation of the next day's presents that their cunning plan was doomed to failure. Periodically my parents would poke their heads round the door of my bedroom to check up on me.
"Has Father Christmas been yet?" I would enquire anxiously.
"No," my father would say severely. "And he won't come while you are still awake."
My parents always forced themselves to stay up until about 3.00am to make sure that I was really sound asleep, and then they would put a huge pillow case full of excitingly wrapped parcels just inside the door of my bedroom before they went off to bed themselves. In retrospect, I can't help thinking that they brought the full horror of what came next upon themselves...
An hour or so after my parents went to bed, I would wake up and spot the pillow case that Father Christmas had left for me. Immediately, all thoughts of sleep forgotten, I would leap out of bed and start investigating all the parcels.
Often there would be drums to bang, racing cars to vroom, vroom around the bedroom and science kits (batteries included) with which the adventurous boy could make door bells, air raid warning sirens and atomic bombs. The noise would rouse my sleep-deprived parents from their brief and fitful slumber..
"Go back to sleep," my father would yell at me. He had no understanding of the ways of children. My mother would put on her red flannelette dressing gown and come into my bedroom. Between jaw breaking yawns she would examine my presents with me and agree that, one and all, they were the best presents ever.
Christmas is supposed to be a family event. But when I was a child in 1950s England, the only family members within a hundred miles were my grandparents who lived about fifteen minutes walk away on the other side of the village. So each household took it in turns to host Christmas one year they'd come to us, the next year we'd go to them.
My grandmother's house had a huge and ancient fireplace with a built in oven off to one side. The fire itself was used to heat the hot water cylinder and it also kept the oven nicely warm. This gigantic oven was the only thing in the entire village large enough to contain a full sized turkey and so, once every two years, it would be ritually cleaned and scrubbed and serviced. This generally involved at least one, and possibly two, visits from a chimney sweep. He always came well equipped with oddly flexible brushes with which to poke and prod the oven's mysteriously convoluted pipes and grilles.
When all was deemed ready, the coal fire would be carefully lit and fed regularly with the best of all possible coal. The turkey would go into the oven early on Christmas Eve and cook slowly for at least eighteen hours. Occasionally it would be prodded, and the juices and giblets would be examined with all the care and attention to detail of a haruspex on the threshold of an important divination. Eventually the monster bird was deemed to be cooked to perfection. Time to overeat...
Despite all the careful servicing of the oven, when the bird was eventually brought forth it would reach the table dusted with a light sprinkling of soot. The really lucky diner would also get the occasional crunchy cinder to chew on.
When it was time to go back home, my grandmother would insist that we took the turkey carcass away with us. We always obliged, and then we lived on turkey for most of January. Eventually even the dog refused to eat any more of it, at which point the semi-stinking carcass would finally get thrown away.
When my grandparents came to us the following Christmas, they were always mildly disappointed to find that my mother was serving chicken. My mother claimed that her oven was far too small to accommodate the average turkey. My grandmother was not convinced by this story, and she always seemed mildly miffed that tradition was being so blatantly violated.
"Christmas just isn't Christmas without turkey," she would complain.
After my grandmother died, the Christmas ritual changed. Now my grandfather came to us every year. He would arrive at lunchtime.
"Hello, Billy," he would say to his son William, my father. "Hello Mu," he would greet Muriel, my mother. "Hello Jumbo," he would say to me.
I don't think my grandfather ever called me by my proper name from the day I was born until the day that he died. He was very upset and annoyed that I was the first male child in the family for untold generations who had not been called either Thomas or William. He refused ever to use my real name. To him I was always Jumbo. I do not know the derivation of that name.
Once my grandfather had arrived and settled in, lunch would be served. He would chomp his way solemnly through his chicken and then retire to the lounge where he would fall asleep in the most comfortable chair and snore loudly all afternoon. He would wake up at 6.00pm whereupon he would declare, "Well, I have to go now," and then he would leave.
We were never sure why he felt he had to leave just before tea time. The full secret was not revealed to us until many years later, after he died and his will was read. That was when we first discovered that the randy old goat was having an affair with a lady in the village. He left her most of his estate; my father got almost nothing. Not surprisingly, this annoyed my father no end and I'll swear that if the old bastard hadn't already been dead, my father would have killed him.
So, every year, when my grandfather left us at tea time on Christmas Day, he would trot off to visit his fancy woman where he'd have yet another Christmas meal, and then indulge himself in a quick game of hide the cracker to round off his day.
While my grandfather was busy getting his sausage sizzled, the rest of us would take the opportunity to indulge in another Christmas tradition. We would huddle round the television set and listen to the Queen's Speech. Queenie herself was always nicely dressed, sometimes formally and sometimes in a cosy twinset and pearls. Her hair was freshly permed. There was always a Christmas tree in the background of the picture and Christmas cards on her mantelpiece. She would speak to us with the precisely enunciated, glass-etching vowel sounds of the English aristocracy.
"My husband and I..."
I feared for the integrity of our cathode ray tube, but it always survived unscathed.
By now it would be quite dark outside. Time for bed; we were all ready for it, having been up since 4.00am. If I was very lucky there might be swirls of snow in the darkness outside the windows, giving the promise of a snowball fight on Boxing Day. Perhaps I'd get a chance to throw a snowball at my grandfather.
"I didn't do it, grandpa. It was a boy called Alan."