Christmas does not start well. Until five days before Christmas, Chateau Stamford is the house with no cheer. While the rest of the street is a fairy grotto of lights, rippling, pulsing and flickering in epileptiform abandon, our house is in near darkness. No winged reindeer, no inflatable Santas, no laughing snowmen. Our house stands resolutely apart like a semidetached Bates Motel. Children cross the street, dogs whimper, postmen will not walk up the drive.
All because of a face off between parents and children. Wearied by the shocking state of disarray in their rooms, I tell the kids at the start of Advent that there will be no tree, decorations or lights until their rooms are tidy. A decade ago, this would have sent them scuttling upstairs like crabs to address the matter in a state of near panic. Not now. “Whatever” says Alice with the kind of contemptuous shrug only a sixteen year old girl can manage. So, for a fortnight, we wait to see who will blink first.
Inevitably it is me. In my usual abject parental capitulation, I wave the white flag five days before Christmas. The terms of surrender are as punitive as the Treaty of Versailles – the kids are prepared to decorate the tree and string up the lights if (and only if) I go up the steep ladder into an arctic loft to retrieve the baubles from among the dark chilly chaos of boxes and mouse traps while they play on the Wii. Half an hour later I emerge from the loft, blinking in the light, frozen to the core and shaking mouse droppings from my slippers. Claire meets me with a glass of mulled wine and a lecture about being too much of a soft touch.
This Christmas, as usual, we find ourselves on our knees seeking Jesus. Usually he is down the back of the sofa or stuck in a heating vent. Sometimes the son of God is in the vacuum cleaner among the tinsel. It doesn’t matter where we put the crib each year, baby Jesus always goes AWOL. And it’s always Him. Never something expendable or replaceable – at a pinch you could always shed a shepherd or one of the supporting cast of animals. But not Jesus. The Boss. Let’s face it a nativity scene without the Big Guy doesn’t really work. So I’m keeping a close eye on Jesus this year. It’s electronic tagging next if the Messiah does a runner again.
On Christmas Eve, we play Scrabble. To add interest I offer to cook the Christmas dinner if I lose. I am on safe ground here because I hardly ever lose. As the letters run out, my word DINNER takes me 94 points clear of Claire. Job done. I pour myself a congratulatory glass of port as Claire stares with furrowed brow at her letters. Suddenly from nowhere she places SQUEEZED across a triple word square, even turning my carelessly placed D against me. 131 points and victory. Pandemonium breaks out with Claire and the girls all whoops and high fives as my Christmas dissolves in a hailstorm of sprouts. As Claire circles the living room on a victory lap, Alex puts his arm around me. “Never mind Dad” he says “just do pizza”
So disorientated am I by this linguistic setback that I forget to leave out the customary glass of sherry for Santa before going to bed.
I wake to the sound of Santa berating me about the sherry. I politely suggest that Santa had already drunk so many Snowballs that a sherry was superfluous.
We open presents. No orgiastic frenzy of ribbon and wrapping paper. With teenagers now, those days are past. Do you know, I rather miss setting up a video camera to catch the presents being unwrapped and prevent the kind of creative anarchy we inflicted on our parents. If Alex was unsure who sent the 1/24 scale Bugatti Veyron, we just replayed the tape. Obvious.
Claire and I start the day with Buck’s Fizz. Unnoticed in the music room, our dog Flora starts her Christmas day with a box of liqueur chocolates, carelessly left beneath the tree. Grand Marnier, Cointreau, cherry brandy, whisky – all gone. Along with wrappers. Strangely she ignores the Drambuie. After a skinful of spirits, Flora can match me for unsteadiness as she thuds into the sofa.
But it’s Christmas day – buoyed by a second glass of Buck’s Fizz, I am not even worried about cooking Christmas dinner. Fear has no meaning for me (I have teenage daughters remember). Like a zen master, I enter the kitchen. Today I will show what calm efficiency can achieve. Claire decides to watch the zen master at work. No pressure. I pour a third Buck’s Fizz and run through my list of required ingredients and timings.
Half the ingredients are missing.
“And the turkey should have been in the oven an hour ago” says Claire.
“Technically it was” I reply, glossing over the fact that I had omitted to switch the oven on.
Alice runs into the kitchen. The dog has been sick.
Suddenly, Christmas dinner begins to unravel. I weigh up my options. Do I swallow my pride and plead for assistance? Or serve an undercooked meal and poison the entire family. Claire reads the panic in my eyes and takes over. “You owe me.” she says “Bigtime.” “Can I do something?” I ask, now reduced to sous-chef. “Yes” she replies “ask Catherine to come and help”. This is the culinary equivalent of having your epaulettes torn off and your sword snapped in half. Short of a letter in the Times, there can be no greater kitchen humiliation. The doorbell rings. I am half expecting Gordon Ramsay to compound my discomfiture but it turns out to be a neighbour borrowing eggs.
I pour myself another Buck’s fizz and flick through the TV channels. Even Ant and Dec seem amusing. I mention this to Alice. “It‘s your medication” she says.
Christmas presents opened, the family busies itself with important jobs. Alex is inserting AAs into a radio-controlled Porsche. Alice is applying another coat of fluorescent nail varnish and Catherine is spending her iTunes voucher. Flora is in her basket sleeping off the mother of all hangovers. Claire is in the kitchen. ‘nuff said.
My fourth Buck’s Fizz sends me soundly to sleep. Alcohol and Azilect – top cocktail. I dream fitfully of being chased through a forest by hamsters the size of timber wolves. Just as the hamsters catch me, I am woken by Catherine.
“Were you dreaming?” she asks