Christmas 1954 had been the first time the shop had shown a reasonable profit. Prior to that, Dad had been hard at work building up the business, ploughing back any takings into a wider range of stock and enticing back customers who had left because of Vic Harrison’s poor business practices.
This year Mum and Dad felt they could let themselves go a bit and celebrate in style. We had a huge Christmas tree with real glass decorations and Mum and I had spent many evenings making paper chains to hang around the walls. They were made from strips of coloured paper, glued at one end, which you licked and forms into a loop. The next one was threaded through, licked and joined into another loop until you literally had a chain. These were then fastened to the ceiling with tin tacks. Once they were in place it was time for a nice cuppa to rehydrate a sticky, foul tasting tongue.
Around the tree were heaped enticing parcels with my name on them. As an only child (and an only niece and only grandchild for several years) I always had lots and lots of presents and lots and lots of dire warnings that Santa’s elves would take them away and give them to poor children if I loosened the wrapping and started to feel inside before Christmas Day. Needless to say this didn’t stop me having a surreptitious poke but I lost a lot of sleep in case they had disappeared in the morning.
The shop was kept open until late on Christmas Eve although Mum had stopped work around teatime in order to look after me and prepare as much as possible for Christmas lunch. In the 1950s it was always a goose or a chicken or occasionally a roast of beef. Turkey as a Christmas dish came in much later. Mum peeled the spuds and parsnips and left them to soak overnight, removed the outer leaves from the Brussels sprouts and cut crosses in their bottoms. Not, as one might think, in memory of Jesus but because it was believed that the cross would open out during cooking and allow the heat to penetrate the stem.
I was packed off to bed after having first put a pillowcase on the foot of the bed for Santa to put my presents in. I was far too excited to sleep and wanted to see Santa arrive but no matter how hard I tried my eyes eventually shut and I drifted into a wonderful world where I had only to snap my fingers and I would be granted any toy I wanted.
I woke early, while it was still dark, and could see a large white shape at the end of my bed. I crawled forward and felt it. Lots of fascinating shapes some soft and squishy, others hard and angular. I called out to Mum and Dad, “Santa’s been” and leapt out of bed to drag the pillowcase into their room. Mum hauled it onto the bed and I wriggled down between her and Dad into that lovely warm space. A treasure trove was revealed, Dandy and Beano annuals, a new jumper edged with angora wool, a games compendium with Snakes and Ladders, Chinese Checkers, Tiddleywinks, Ludo.
Dad had to get up as he opened the shop for a couple of hours on Christmas morning before going to Mass but Mum and I were free then and snuggled down together in the double bed while I read my annuals. As the shop had no safe and we were sharing the accommodation with another family Dad stuffed his Christmas takings of well over £500 into his pocket and we all went to ten o’ clock mass at Holy Souls in Bosworth Road. Dad and I both received communion which Mum, as C of E, was unable to do but sang along with us all the carols “Hark the Herald Angels” which , for years, I thought was “hark the harelipped angels”, “Oh Little town of Bethlehem”, “Adeste Fidelis”,”Angels from the realms of Glory”
At the conclusion of mass “Ite Missa est” was announced and we all filed out. Father Ward and Father Long had left through the side exit and were waiting to greet parishioners at the main exit. As they always did, it was “Merry Christmas Gwen, Merry Christmas Vic” and then an overt turning aside to ignore my mother because she was not Catholic. One time Mum commented on this to Dad and he expressed surprise, thinking she must have been mistaken. However after several Sundays he admitted she was correct. These Men if God were deliberately snubbing Mum because she belonged to a different church.
But today was Christmas Day and no time for examining grudges. Mum had to start cooking Christmas Dinner and I had a bevy of presents calling out to be played with. The Catholic Club upstairs from the church was open after mass and Dad stopped behind to partake of a little seasonal conviviality, promising to be home in time for our meal at 2pm.
Two o’clock came, the goose was beautifully browned and oozing succulent juices, the potatoes were golden and crispy but no sign of Dad. Mum delayed putting on the brussels sprouts and making the gravy. Half past two, still no Dad. Three o’clock, Mum was getting cross I was hungry and grizzly. The brussels were cooked gravy made and Mum served up our dinner. We’d just finished our Christmas pud and custard when we heard the front door open and unsteady footsteps up the staircase accompanied by slurred and tuneless singing.
The lounge door swung open, in lurched Dad in a state of advanced inebriation. He saw the remains of the dinner and said sadly, “You didn’t wait for me. Where’s mine?” Mum muttered something inaudible and disappeared into the kitchen where banging of plates could be heard. Meantime Dad had sunk onto the sofa and was sound asleep a few minutes before she returned with a plate of cold meat and vegetables which she slammed on the table.
Dad opened his eyes. “Take my shoes off for me Darling”, he slurred. I’m not taking off any drunken man’s shoes”, Mum retaliated. “Come on Darling, you’ll do it for Dad”, he asked me. “Oh no you don’t”, from Mum, “he got himself into this state” Dad sunk back into his own little world again, shoes still on.
Among my presents was a toy train set. Mum helped me set this up and we busied ourselves winding keys and changing junctions and flagging signals with accompanying appropriate train noises. At one stage a very blurry eyed Dad woke up and groaned. “Can’t you bitches be quiet?” Unusual for Dad to swear in front of me although he could be as foul mouthed as any of his customers and had a wonderfully descriptive line of rhetoric.
Mum retaliated that it was Christmas Day and she wasn’t going to stop me having fun even if he was too drunk to come home in time for dinner. She upped the train noises and crashed and banged as much as she could. Just then a movement from the sofa and something came hurtling towards us before Dad lapsed back into his drunken stupor. Mum picked up the object and realised it was the shop’s Christmas takings which Dad had had in his pocket all this time. She placed the package in one of the sideboard drawers and we spent the rest of the afternoon pleasantly occupied while Dad snorted, grunted and farted.
It was early evening before Dad woke, having slept off most of the alcohol. He clearly had no recollection of how he had spent his day between mass and now. “I need a piss”, and off he staggered downstairs only to return minutes later, fly undone, a panic stricken look in his eye. “The money”, he gasped. “What money?” Mum asked innocently, flashing me a look to keep my mouth shut. “The takings! I can’t find them. I had them in my pocket when we went to mass this morning.” Mum again expressed ignorance as to their whereabouts and suggested Dad return to Holy Souls and see if he’d dropped them there. He pulled on his demob overcoat, wrapped a scarf round his neck and headed out.
While he was out Mum opened the drawer, extracted the package and placed it on a plate on the table and sat and waited. Eventually a cold, tired, haggard Dad returned looking woebegone. He saw the package on the table and opened his mouth to say something but the look on Mum’s face cautioned him to hold his tongue. He sloped out to the kitchen, made himself a cold meat sandwich and a pot of tea. The rest of Christmas Day was passed in silence but fortunately the matter had passed over by Boxing Day when we went up to Golders Green to spend the day with Dad’s father and stepmother.