‘Hell is other people’

The Christmas I remember best is the one in which my father pulled over the Christmas tree after we had set it up in the lounge room.

It must have happened during one of his many fits of rage, where he wanted to make a point. Drunk and feeling rejected or unloved, he inflicted his pain on the rest of us. 

It seems almost trivial now, by way of memory, but at the time it felt indecent. 

My mother had brought ornaments all the way from Holland, small shining tear drop shaped baubles in golds and reds. One indented and coated in silver, the other deep crimson and round as a plum. 

These two broke and shattered across the floor. We kids stood back in our summer bare feet to stop ourselves from taking on splinters. 

The fallen tree had a sacrilegious feel, as though my father had smashed open the tabernacle in church. The place where the priest housed the left-over hosts after communion; the place where Christ’s body in the form of those white round Farex tasting wafers was meant to rest. 

Our Christmas tree was sacred. With its angel at the top and all the promise it held. 

This morning I listened to a short video of Marian Keyes in which she gives advice on how to treat yourself over Christmas, the stuff of being kind. 

Christmas is tough for many people, she reckons. She an Irish woman, in a Catholic country filled with people who drink too much, including her, though she describes herself as no longer drinking. 

One expression has stayed with me. Keyes talks about not allowing too much perfectionism, which to her mind leads impossible expectations. 

‘Expectations are disappointments under construction,’  she says. 

How’s that for an idea? 

It’s true: when you expect too much, you’re heading towards disappointment.

Yet expectation would have to be a close cousin of hope and I reckon we all need hope, otherwise why bother.

I hoped our Christmas might be good enough for us here, and it was. More than that, it was fun and no one who shared Christmas day with us seemed out of it, though I imagine inside their hearts there were some who found it tough. 

While others revelled in it.

Come Boxing Day, I’m blessedly relieved, to rest for the first time in an age and to enjoy our afternoon Boxing Day tradition of taking in a movie, the more magisterial the better.

In the last, we’ve watched all of the Hobbit movie and Lord of the Rings trilogy, year after year on Boxing Day, and now we’re onto Star Wars. 

This year’s Star Wars does not cop a good rating, but who cares? 

It’s not a movie I’d watch as first preference but two grandsons who love such hype and others too, it’s enough for me to bathe in reflected joy.

Afterwards we eat together, those of my lot who can make this pilgrimage to the Rivoli or the Lido, whichever movie house offers the best time and we debrief over Christmas and get ready for the holidays ahead. 

For most take holidays at this time of the year. 

And then to suggest something of the Grinch at Christmas, my husband showed us this newspaper clipping he’d kept from years gone by. 

His Horoscope in 2003, which presumably he shared with other Virgos:

Jean-Paul Satre’s famous saying that “hell is other people” is truer for Virgos than anyone. You’re surrounded by fools, nincompoops and absolute ning-nongs – but you can’t fail that patience exam, can you?

He and Marian Keyes might share something in common in terms of their awareness of the dark side of life, and both might plead for more good will. 

It’s a tough time of year, so watch your expectations. 

Even our gargoyle agrees.

An unsent letter

A letter to my analyst

Dear Mrs Milanova

It’s high time I wrote to you. I’m here in a place called Yarck near Alexandra on a writing retreat. One aimed at helping me and eight others, all women from the same age demographic, develop our writing skills.

But here in Yarck I want to do more. I want to write about our time together, yours and mine, when I was one of your many patients and you were my one and only analyst. 

That sets up the imbalance for starters. You were like a movie star to me and held the same thrall while I was simply one of your many fans. Maybe that emulated my experience growing up in a family, all those siblings and only one mother to go around. And one mother who gave up going around soon after the birth of each one of us in turn.

As babies up till three months she managed to breast feed; beyond that the weaning and then by the time we could walk and talk even before we were out of nappies we had to find ways of managing with the help of older brothers and sisters, sisters mainly, to get by.

You helped to steer me through that morass of memory, a childhood full of people, too many people and only one mother who hid herself away in books and religion and a father who roamed the house at night in search of beds to share, with daughters whose bodies did not welcome such visits and only one, my older sister with whom he stayed over time.

All this until our mother, the one mother who hid herself away in books and religion and tried to resist our father’s overtures for fear of yet another pregnancy, caught him in the act. Caught him with her first-born daughter and warned him off. 

‘If you come here again, I’ll kill you.’ Fierce words and she meant them only once our father was full of brandy and oblivious to the taboos of parental ties, he forgot her threat and resumed his visits and my sister who disliked these visits so much got herself out of bed around five o’clock and walked through the streets of Camberwell to the church in Deepdene alone, determined to spend the rest of the morning before school at Mass. 

People thought she was devout. Nun material and she toyed with this, entry into a convent as a way of escape but it did not matter for the sacristy after Mass each day held sway when the priest invited her to join him there. But the priest was kinder that our father when he held her in his arms and stroked her hair and kissed her full on the mouth and offered her love.

Better than our father who was more interested in the sexual side of love even if misplaced onto his first-born daughter.

No not his first-born, that daughter was dead already at five months of age from some sort of meningitis in war torn Holland. She was buried there in a small grave in Heilo where our mother had taken her in the hope of finding food during the Honger Winter of 1945. 

The war ended and their daughter dead, my father stayed with the army reserve and they shipped him off to Indonesia for two years so that he could fight and lose against the Indonesians in their bid for independence.

It gave our mother a two-year respite between babies, though she visited her our father once while he was in England, on officer training and her second son arrived as a result. 

This first born daughter, at least the one who lived beyond five months, took the place of our mother, as cook and cleaner. Every Saturday she slaved under piles of washing, the dirty underwear, socks, shorts and dresses of eleven people while our mother took herself off to work to look after other people’s children in a children’s reception centre to augment the family income. 

Our father earned good money as an accountant but hated to spend it on children, as much as he did. He drew the line at paying the school fees at the Catholic school our mother insisted we children attend. 

So my older sister took on the role of housekeeper and second wife to our father and I stood next in line to take her place or so I believed though I rebelled in silence by hiding in the back yard whenever chore time started on Saturday mornings or paying lip service only to the clean-up of our bedroom, the one single task my older sister allocated to me.

I hid away and with my younger sister we went to the swimming pool in Camberwell in summer and to the park in winter.

I bore witness to these events, preferring to observe than to participate, always on the edge, never at the centre. Though I longed to find that central place, I did not want it with my father but with my mother.

I never found it with her even though she passed on her name to me, the same name she bore in full and yet I could not matter to her as much as when I was a small child, I imagined I did. 

Always the one who suffered the most, my older sister held sway with both parents. Both turned to her, both took from her and in a strange way gave to her the label of victim, the one member of the family who suffered the most and as suffering holds much sway within the Catholic church her place was cemented in sainthood while the one who stands nearby and looks on holds the uncertain role of messenger and whistle blower.  

We all hate tittle tattlers and even as I write to you Mrs Milanoiva from this writing retreat at Yarck, the sense of rule breaking and rebellion runs through me.

Whistle-blowers break the rules of the established order by calling out the secrets of authority, by exposing chinks in the armour of those who rule. They destabilise the situation and lead to wars and trouble and unhappiness because they cannot sit still on the periphery and see that things are not quite right while hoping against hope that they too might get a chance to speak their mind on centre stage while ever fearful of what might come out when they try.

Enough of this long rant. It is time to rest my keyboard heavy fingers and move onto other words.