‘Hello darling it’s me; how was your week?’
‘Hey mum, not too bad thanks – the kids have all had colds and Dan is lying on the sofa suffering from man-flu; but apart from that it’s all good.’
I close the door on the noise from the lounge. Mum always rings on Sunday at 5.30 so I’d set the children up with a Christmas treat of a glass of fizzy pop and some cookies and told them to write their letters to Santa while I talked to Grandma. I had fifteen minutes ‘til the mince-pies needed to come out of the oven. Sitting on the bottom stair I settled down for a chat.
‘Remember mum, how I used to cringe when you put our home-made decorations on the Christmas tree every year – even when we were teenagers? I get it now … the handprint reindeer that Alex made when he was five is practically falling apart, but I can’t bring myself to throw it out!’
‘Every family has its traditions darling, I can still picture the four of you sitting at the table in the living room, radio blaring out Christmas music and all of you making your cards for Nana and Grandad. They always had to be the same theme and you older girls always teased the twins for their attempts to copy your Snowmen or Gingerbread men or whatever fiendishly difficult things you big sisters could come up with!’
‘Anyway, how have you been Mum?’
I know Christmas isn’t an easy time for her since dad left. It’s been five years; him and Lisa seem very happy but it’s weird having a step-mum only ten years older than me. They both tried really hard not to drag us into their break-up and mum has always been very positive about what a good father he is. The only time I remember her betraying how she might be feeling was in church when the sermon was about God smiting the Egyptians with a plague of boils and she couldn’t hide her grin. ‘Now there’s an idea.’ she said under her breath.
‘Well, I got some new lights for the tree that goes in the window, and the lady in Argos said they should have that game that Alexander wants some time next week… oh and I got ejected from a museum on Wednesday.’
‘Mum… you were asked to leave a museum?’
‘Yes… I was escorted out by an elf.’
‘Are you sure you haven’t been eating too many luxury mince pies? They have real alcohol in them you know.’
‘Mummy!’ comes a scream from the lounge. ‘Cheska says if I put pictures on my list to Santa he’ll think I’m a baby and give me a bottle instead of a scooter!’ screams our youngest daughter Lolly.
‘Tell Francesca that all the best Christmas lists have pictures on and that if she doesn’t stop teasing you I’ll be speaking to Santa myself!’ I yell, followed by a loud argument over the felt-tips as they all start drawing. Why can’t their father stir himself, he knows I’m on the phone?
‘Sorry mum, you said something about an elf?’
‘Well darling you know the museum in town has that wonderful Victorian street full of shops and an old pub and the like?’
Yes, we’d taken the kids – they were more interested in charging up and down the corridors; but I remembered the Victorian Walk with its old-fashioned shops and offices. Think Diagon Alley in Harry Potter just without the broomsticks.
‘They do it up nicely at Christmas with snow and decorations and lovely Victorian cards – it’s meant to be Christmas Eve. There’s even a tasteful grotto where the children can go and see Father Christmas. I’ve gone there the last few years – it’s one of my new Christmas traditions. Not likely to run into your father in there.’
‘I still don’t get why you were thrown out mum?’
‘Escorted out dear, only riff-raff get thrown out. Well I’d been on my feet for a couple of hours by the time I got there so I just wanted to rest for a moment or two on one of the seats in the queue for parents who are waiting to go into the grotto. My corns have been playing up – the cold weather doesn’t help.’
Please tell me that when I’m her age I won’t spend all my time telling people about my feet.
‘Well along comes this officious little madam in her museum guard uniform – she must have been all of twelve years old and tells me I need to move, because the seats are for parents only and I clearly don’t have a child with me. I was in the process of pointing out that there were plenty of spare seats, and started to tell her about my corns … and she rolled her eyes… rolled her eyes I tell you… and said “Was I going to go or did she have to make me?”’
‘Mum … what did you do?’ I had a terrible feeling that I knew what was coming next.
My mother’s voice throbbed with indignation down the phone. ‘I told her in no uncertain terms what a rude young lady she was and in my day young people respected their elders and that she was lucky she wasn’t MY daughter or she’d be going home with a smack, as big as she was.’
‘Mum, you can’t say things like that to strangers.’ I groaned. ‘Then what happened?’
‘Well she got all aeriated and said that I was using abusive and threatening language and that I had to leave. Me! I’m a member of the church choir for goodness sake! She took hold of my arm and tried to escort me out and I told her I had no intention of leaving. My taxes pay her wages!’
‘I’m still not sure where the elf comes in Mum?’
‘She starts screeching like a banshee for ‘back-up’ – her mother must be so proud! Well then out comes an elf from Santa’s grotto with his hat and little rosy cheeks and everything. He had the good grace to apologise for causing any trouble and says could he walk me to the door because all the shouting might frighten the little children. I didn’t like to point out that it wasn’t me doing the shouting, but he was being so charming. Santa obviously trains his elves better the museum staff.’
By now my sides are aching with trying not to laugh and I have my hand over the receiver trying not to snort down the phone. I dread to think how far my mascara has made it down my face.
‘So he walks me out – it wouldn’t be so bad,’ she said laughing in spite of herself. ‘but he had little jingly shoes so everyone could hear us as we walked to the door. He took me all the way to the entrance, such a lovely boy. Anyway, time I was going darling. I’ll be seeing you all soon; it’s so good of you to have us all over this year. I’m bringing my Christmas cake, now are you sure I can’t bring anything else?’
‘No mum, just yourself. Karen is cooking the turkey and bringing it over and all the veg is done and in the freezer. The boys aren’t coming over ‘til Boxing Day – they said they’re at some student party Christmas Eve and might not surface ’til after the Queen’s speech. Must go now, the timer on the oven has just pinged.’
‘Okay, see you Christmas Eve darling, lots of love, God bless.’
‘Love you too mum, bye now.’
Going into the kitchen I simultaneously rescue the mince pies, shove oven chips and burgers on a baking tray and repair my eye make-up.
‘Okay kids,’ I say as I enter the lounge, ‘we’ve got twenty minutes ‘til you need to get ready for dinner, shall we make Grandma’s Christmas cards?’
‘What picture shall we do?’ Asks Alexander.
‘I think Grandma would love cards with lots of elves on – make sure they have little jingle bells on their shoes.’
‘If athletes get athlete’s foot what do elves get?’ calls Dan from the sofa.
‘Mistletoes!’ chorus the children groaning. ‘Dad your jokes are terrible!’