Thursday, 24 December 2015

The Christmas Tree.

The Christmas tree stands naked and wonky in the corner of the kitchen for nearly a week. We're waiting for an evening when we’re all in together to decorate it, and that’s how long it takes. Without baubles and lights it's a sad and brooding presence. Raw and pagan, it's left neglected in the middle of our domesticity.

Finally, on day six, with a meal to be served and everyone about to gather, I find the time to untangle the fairy lights, unwrap some of the precious glass ornaments and set aside the cardboard loo roll glitter fairy the boys made when they were little. It’s strangely cathartic. How many Christmas trees have I decorated, I wonder, and how many more will there be? By the number of such rituals a whole life could be measured.

“There is only this moment,” booms Derren Brown, two days later, alone and centre stage at the Palace Theatre on the Saturday before Christmas. A clock hologram ticks ominously behind his head, then stops. 

We’re here because five months ago, when I booked the tickets, Middle One was going through a Derren Brown obsession, which he is now over. “When will it finish because I have to be at a party later?” he asks, as we’re about to set off for the show.

 “This is real, this moment, everything else is stories,” says Derren. “Stories we tell ourselves about our past, stories we tell ourselves about our future, but we can change them. We don’t have to tell ourselves we are broken or fat or useless, we alone have the power to alter those stories.”

It’s showbiz, so much flimflam, but it’s also weirdly powerful. Sitting below him in the stalls, looking up, I feel, probably like everyone else in that audience at that moment, as if he’s talking just to me.

Eldest bites into his burger as we sit outside a restaurant in Soho after the show (outside, in December!) because it’s incredibly warm. “I probably won’t come back next term because there isn’t a reading week,” he says, between mouthfuls, “so you won’t see me for three months.”

“Three months?” I say. “I can’t not see you for three months.”

He shrugs. He’s having a fantastic time at university, the time of his life, you might say, which is how it should be.

We finish the meal and head home.

“What GCSEs should I do if I want to be an animator?” ask Youngest, on the tube.

“An animator?” I say. “Wow, that sounds good, probably Media Studies for a start. Let’s look into it.” Youngest smiles, he often feels left out, overshadowed by his two much louder, taller brothers.

Back home Middle One plays his guitar at me. He does this a lot, walks round the house with the acoustic guitar round his neck and stands and plays and sings to me, full throttle. I watch his fingers move expertly across the instrument and I’m in awe. He’s good, very good, as is Eldest, they're both in bands and writing songs.

Middle One says he wants to try and make it as a musician. He’d like to go to the States. If it doesn’t work out he’ll come home and go to university.

“Good plan,” I say. “Sounds amazing.”

If it works out he might have the time of his life, I hope so, although I’d also rather like him to stay at home with me forever sitting on the sofa and watching Frasier, like we used to.

Derren Brown's show is arresting, his timing unfathomable, but he's right about one thing: we are alone in our stories and we have the power to change them. We arrive into them alone; we will leave them alone. It’s tempting to look at them and think they’re like ones in books or films, with proper beginnings and middles and ends, with a narrative arc, with reasons things happen, with everything relating to everything else, but there are really only moments, lots of moments linked together like a string of fairy lights on a tree. Some are great, some are terrible, some are warm and cosy and Christmassy with family and friends by the fireside, most are pretty dull.

We decorated the tree. Husband put the music on: Rock Around The Christmas Tree, I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day, Sleigh Ride by the Ventures, which is a family favourite, then Christmas With The Rat Pack, as we always do. 

We discovered all the old ornaments in the box, one by one: “Hey do you remember this one?” “Look at this!” “Oh, this is the best.” We placed the cardboard fairy on top as we sang the song, which is our tradition because my mother does it: “Every little girl would like to be the fairy on the Christmas tree... except we only know the first verse so it always rather lamely peters out.

We stand back and look. It’s spectacular, and for a brief while it will reign resplendent in the kitchen, the centre of attention, because this is its moment.

Merry Christmas.

Love E x


P.S. Shortly after I wrote this the Christmas tree fell over. Husband said he’d get some rocks from the garden and stand the tree in a bucket of them. I said that would be using a hammer to crack a nut. We stood it back up and it was a bit wobbly for a while, then appeared to steady itself. Now it’s out by the bins.

“Elizabeth was excessively disappointed… But it was her business to be satisfied – and certainly her temper to be happy; and all was soon right again.” Guess the book. Amazing how a bit of reading can lift the spirits.

And by the way, those rare bright moments, like fairy lights on a tree, are what make life worth living. Here's me having one with my dad...

With my lovely father, 23.12.15. He's grown a beard and now looks even more like my grandfather.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

A Feast For The Eyes.

I drag Eldest to see Dr Zhivago. Actually, that's not true, there's no dragging. He’s fine with it. Loves films, as do I. So I’m in my element down on the Southbank with my boy: early evening, bright lights, black river, street food, beer glugged from the bottle. 

I booked the BFI because that’s where we saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, on the big screen, and it was great. So if it can make that palatable imagine what it will do with Omar Sharif. I’ll be climbing out of my seat with a knife and fork.

And it’s as good as I remember. Better. Okay, so Julie Christie’s a rotten tomato, and looks ridiculously 60s and wrong, but Omar Sharif, he's riveting up there, ridiculously handsome in close up, with deep brown, hungry eyes.

It’s an epic film, serving up vast swathes of history, landscape and human emotion in meaty episodic chunks, but I’m waiting for the pudding, which is unusual for me. Eldest enjoys the main, so, as with all good meals, there’s something here for everyone. If you haven’t seen it yet, here's a little to keep you going, an amuse-bouche...

It’s from the book by Boris Pasternak (1957), directed by David Lean, made on the back of the success of Lawrence of Arabia, it seriously pissed off the Soviet Union in the height of the cold war (mid 60s) and they banned it. Omar Sharif’s own son plays him as a child, briefly, at the top of the film. Michael Caine was considered for the role of Dr Zhivago (for God’s sake). It was made chiefly in Spain and Portugal, with those snow scenes from the train shot in Canada. Critics were disappointed when it came out (too much stress on the love story), but now it’s ranked 39th best American film of all time by the American Film Institute.

Zhivago is a doctor, a poet, a stunningly handsome man, a romantic hero with a capital R. And then there’s the music, Lara’s theme, on the balalaika. For me, though, it’s that bit near the end when Zhivago is desperate for one last glimpse of his lover and runs through the frozen house, the Dacha, up to the top, but the window’s iced over, he can’t see through, there’s panic haunting his eyes. Will he see her again? He breaks it: smashes the glass, and there’s the sledge with her in it, disappearing over the edge of the horizon. Gets me every time. From then on, until the approaching denouement, I’m teetering on an edge of my own. 

“See you in the lobby in a minute,” I say to Eldest, and I have to dash to the loo because I'm coming apart at the seams.

Despite the street food the boy's still hungry, so I take him to the Skylon bar in the Royal Festival Hall: two more beers and some chips for fifteen quid. But talking about films with my eldest son, there's no price for that.

After, we walk through the lobby to the exit, and I think how much I love it here: carpeted calm, the whole building a relic from a bygone braver world of optimism. We push through the doors, out to the drizzling dark, happy and chatty. Then Eldest says, hang on, he should pee before we hit the tube. 

“Okay," I say, "we’ll go back in.” 

But we’re spotted by a security guard, "This building is closed!" he shouts. "Get out!"

“Okay,” I say again, “hold your horses, we were just in here, we bought drinks. He’s only going to the loo.” 

But he screams over the top of what I'm saying, not listening. Eldest legs it, just runs to the Gents, with this crazy guard in hot pursuit, me even hotter behind, three figures sprinting across the floor. Quite funny in retrospect.

The guard follows him in there. Whoa! So I hold open the door, shouting for him to leave him alone. So where's she come from all of a sudden? This wild thing, out to protect her cub. I need to be able to see him.

After what seems an age, but is only a few minutes, they reappear, the guard still shouting, inches from my face, me shouting back for him to listen, which he doesn’t.

“It’s okay,” says Eldest, talking my arm, “calm down. Let's get out.”

I calm down. We head out across the lobby, shadowed by the guard, back into the night, passing the Nelson Mandela statue. No long walk for us, only a short way back to the Northern line, and home.

Love E x


P.S. Cold, snow, ice... looks so romantic on screen, perhaps not so much in real life.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Up Close And Personal.

10.30 am: Lying flat on my back, staring up at the ceiling, thinking: I'm going to have to tell her to be gentle because I bruise easily. 

My pilates teacher is fantastic and has totally cured the back problem I was developing from sitting hunched at the computer for hours on end, but she's a hard task master and there's nowhere to hide in her class. She roams the chilly church hall on the look-out for victims who are not in exactly the right position, and when she finds one she pushes and prods her (there's only one him) until she's satisfied. Last week it was me.

"Um," I say, eyes scrunched shut, feeling the floor vibrating with her approaching footfall. "The thing is that last time you, um…" I open them again in time to see her elegant outstretched fingers moving purposefully toward my left haunch. I'll just have to go for it. "The thing is, I had this small round black bruise on my bum last week, which was quite tricky to explain to my husband."

There. Said it. There is some embarrassed tittering in the class, but so be it. Much as I love my pilates class and I'm willing to move heaven and earth not to miss it, it had to be said. There's such a thing as personal space and bruising my arse definitely constitutes invading it.

12 pm: "I think if I was heterosexual I would love this job even more," says Sergio, my hairdresser, his scissors dancing dangerously close to my eyes.

I have to ask. 


"Because look! I am so near to you right now, I am right in your face! I can feel your breath. If I fancied you this would be fantastic."

I'm not sure whether to take this as a compliment or not. I decide that at my age, with compliments thin on the ground, I may as well. Plus it reminds me of something to say to Sergio, and I can never think of anything to say to Sergio.

"I did have a hairdresser ask me if I wanted a massage once," I say to Sergio. "Kensington, behind Barkers department store. I used to go there after work in the evening and one night the place was empty, except for him and me, and he was telling me about his messy divorce and how much he hated his ex-wife and he suddenly stopped cutting my hair and said I seemed tense and did I want to come downstairs after the haircut for a massage?"

"No!" says Sergio. "What did you do?"

"I declined. Then I paid for my haircut and left and I never went back."

"I think he was heterosexual," says Sergio.

"I think so," I say, "or at least pansexual."

Sergio looks at me quizzically but I can't be bothered to try to explain to him, above the noise of three hairdryers, that it's all non-binary now and there are actually 71 different genders.

3pm: My fingers are poised over my laptop

"We'll have a cup of tea here and then I'll take you back to the home!" Shouts a man on the opposite side of the cafe.

I try to blot him out, wriggling further down into the lumpy leather sofa. I stare out of the window at the skeletal trees silhouetted against the leaden sky. Then I type this. Then I delete it because it's a stupid obvious cliche.

"I'm in touch with a few women on eHarmony, so that might work out!"

That's quite hard to ignore but I try because I'm in the middle of a tricky paragraph.

"It's going to be quite a lonely Christmas!"

For God's sake, will the stupid man stop shouting. I can't quite see his companion, I assume he's elderly, he's certainly hard of hearing, but I can see him, Mr Lonelyhearts: glasses, grey hair, forlorn fleece, matching expression.

I've deliberately chosen this cafe because it's slightly out of my usual stomping ground and doesn't have much in the way of loud music, retro lighting or, usually, customers. Instead it has a lovely view of trees and the sad air of a has-been 90's coffee chain, because that's what it is. 

I like the walk here and it gets me out of the empty silent house where I sometimes feel that if I fell in my office and no one was around to hear it, I might not make a sound. Also, I have a habit of slipping into inertia at home, or sleep, and there are piles of unopened post and clean washing crying out for attention. Rather than answering their call I like to get as far away as possible, even though I know it's still there, like a dog whistle.

"This year I'll be doing the kids' stockings by myself!"

This man is invading my ear space and pulling on my heart strings, and now there's another voice competing for attention: loud, female, braying. Standing at the growing queue is the woman to whom it belongs.

"We've just had our basement done," she says.

She's lately arrived with her dog and greeted another idetikit woman (Barbour jacket, wellies, highlights), also with a dog, who was already in the queue, in a way that makes it clear that they are acquaintances, but not friends.

"Not the usual sort of thing," she continues, "we decided not to go for the cinema room and all that, instead we have a gun and fishing tackle room for Hugo and somewhere he can keep his wine."

I accidentally type the word wine instead of when and look up and glower at the two women, but they don't notice me, possibly because I am hiding under my hat, as usual. The second woman merely nods appreciatively.

"And will you be at home to use your new basement for Christmas?"

"No! We can't bear London at Christmas. We'll be at our place in Wiltshire."

"How is Scarlett getting on?"

I stop typing and pretend to notice something interesting through the window. That was a shocking non sequitur, I think.

"Oh she's going to a marvellous place now, near Victoria."

"For her A-Levels? " 

"Not A-Levels exactly, it's more, you know, teaching life skills: how to do a good CV, job interview, organise a charity ball…"

That's it. I snap the laptop shut. I'm going back to the house to write. I don't care how quiet it is and how much I feel like a lonely tree in a forest, at least there won't be any people in it.

Love E x


P.S. L'enfer, c'est les autres, as Sartre put it.