Whodunnit? Xmas Special

28 December, 2009

I had a fantastic Christmas. The kids loved their presents. Asha (2) spent the morning playing with a 10p party blower and a balloon, he refused to open his ball, truck or stocking. Amba (4)  refused to wear the special sparkly dress I bought her – “You see, it’s a summer dress mummy”. She left the house wrapped up for winter, in a sequinned vest and sparkly shorts. Sami (7) took his trophy with him to Mr. Ex’s – that was really sweet. We piled out in a rush at noon, headed in different destinations. Hats and coats tossed between our cars, until Mr. Ex had basic winter apparel for each of the children.

I went to Oxford, to meet friends for a pre-xmas-lunch, lunch. In the city there were quite a lot of people out, on their way to special dinners in smart winter coats.


It was chucking out time as I passed Blackfriars, (Catholic seminary) a lot of very clean, happy people, fresh from Church, were chatting together, next to a girl sitting on the pavement, asking for change. I offered her Xmas lunch instead of cash, she turned me down. When I came back an hour or so later the streets were pretty bare and she was gone. Everyone had arrived where they were going, turkeys and trimmings no doubt being devoured. But I did notice a few single souls in the distance, as I walked along. An old woman with her walking stick. A unusual looking woman with some bags, again on her own. I wondered if these people were out and about so that they didn’t have to spend a long day at home, alone. Just noticing them, made me feel so grateful to have so much going on at Xmas. The children all morning, lunch with friends in town and overnight at my friend’s (Earth Mother) house.

So on to Earth Mother’s, lovingly crafted, organically home made, Christmas. Full of festive spirit and good tidings to all. As in previous years we’ve split the cooking between us to make it fairer. I made a big bowl of roast potatoes and prepared all the brussel sprouts. She made, nut roast, apricot stuffing, fresh cranberry sauce, roast parsnips, real bread sauce, sweet potatoes, carrots, peas, mashed swede, veggie gravy, a Xmas cake, mince pies, steamed date pudding and her very own chocolate truffles. I did remind her later that she’d forgotten to do the yorkshire puddings.

Earth Mother’s husband, “Forester Father”, manages a woodland and he made extra Christmas money this year by selling handmade items at the Oxford green fair. He’d whittled lovely wooden catapults for kids. Made traditional fire-lighting sets which were either a bow drill set

Bow Drill firelighter

(wooden bow), or a little tin filled with flint and kindling. He prepared his own charcoal and assembled it into drawing gift-sets and carved wooden spoons. His stall sold out because his stuff is just so lovely. Then with the proceeds he asked his own children what they would like for Christmas. They asked for, a pair of Nike trainers, a Ben Ten scooter and a game for the Wii. I walked round his house with him, to see some of the other things he’d been up to. He’d renovated the bathroom in reclaimed wood. And made amazing shelving from green oak with the bark still on it. Then, with mischievous eyes he said, “Look what I made my mother-in-law for Christmas” and proudly held up a full size witches broomstick.

Earth Mother’s Mother is a witch. She is a member of a proper Coven Imagine the typical cliché of a witch – long, flowing, velvety clothes, waist length salt and pepper hair, a pocket full of herbs and odd trinkets – well that’s not her. She arrives in a silver thigh high mini dress and gray leopard print tights. She works out three times a week and has the body and spirit of a rebellious teenager (and at times the language too). The youngest of her four, adult, children, Tobias, accompanies her.

Tobias is one of this year’s incredible Christmas gifts, returned to us from lost inside his mind. I look into his shining eyes and I see a light that has been gone for so long. It is just brilliant to be able to talk to him and find him present in the conversation. He and I chat about his incredible recovery and I ask him what it was like when he was ill. It’s interesting how he describes it. He says it was as if his mind progressively began to slow down. It got slower and slower, until it got to a point when people spoke to him he was no longer able to reply in their time frame. He entered a different time, a world within a world. He said he’d know that people had come into the room and had spoken to him, but while he was still deciding if a reply was needed, they would have left. At that stage, they were probably spending an hour or more visiting him. Then he said, it was as if it eventually just got so slow that it stopped altogether. He just wasn’t able to physically move for periods of time, or think thoughts, they didn’t go anywhere any more. His mind simply didn’t work. I have to say that I really didn’t think I’d ever have a conversation like this with him. I really didn’t think he had much quality of life ahead of him at times this year. It is the most amazing thing to see him so much better. He tells me about his plans to return to education. It’s a very moving lesson in just how incredibly resilient and resourceful we human beings are, when it comes to healing and living.

I leave on Boxing Day, and collect the kids from Mr. Ex’s boat. I catch him doing a Rihanna impression on the deck outside. He is uncannily like her  – if you take into account he is a six foot bloke who can neither sing or dance. The kids and I get home and find, to my shock, that our front door is wide open. In our happy absence, I can see we have been burgled – at Christmas. I shout to the them to stay in the car and I rush inside. I can’t believe it. It feels icy cold in the house and so does my heart. The hall is strewn with stuff, I trip towards the living room – their lovely gifts and toys, under my feet. I’d left it all in neat piles under the tree. In there it’s worse, everything’s been thrown all over the place and the tree is barely upright, the lights are all over the floor. It’s unbelievable chaos. Someone’s deranged mind has torn through my house. They must have come the night before, Christmas Night. I wonder what it’s like upstairs and I try to think if we have anything of value to steal – only my laptop. Sadly I walk into the kitchen – it’s a mess, but it was when I left. Then I see, to my absolute amazement, my laptop is still on the kitchen table. How can it still be here? It’s so visible, so available, sitting pretty in the middle of the room, but they didn’t take it. What the hell did they want? Slowly I realise the truth, it’s hard to believe. This isn’t a burglary. The kids have wrecked the living room, deranged on Cadburys selection packs and over excited at Mr. Ex.’s arrival. I bet cute little Asha did the tree over – when he discovered Santa had covered it in chocolates. I had no idea, I was calmly doing roast potatoes in the kitchen.

But who the hell has been round and left the door wide open? Slowly, a hazy memory comes to me – didn’t I leave the front door ajar, while I checked for my car keys? Surely, I went back to slam it?

Honestly, we did make it ourselves. Bet you thought we'd bought it.


23 December, 2009

I rang Carol, one of the church wardens recently about a friend who needed a hamper of food at Xmas. My friend had broken her back (she can walk), and a number of other things had happened. She gained an abused stepchild the day she came out of hospital, in addition to her own two young children. A long year of recovery ahead of her, a husband who’s miraculously survived three heart attacks but is unable to work. Tough times indeed. I first heard about free hampers when my Health Visitor referred me for one. They are a lovely thing to get when you’re facing a skint Christmas. An amazing box of grocery blessings, dropped on your doorstep from heaven. Ok, so mine is actually dropped off by the Rotary Club, but you know what I mean.

So I was on the phone to Carol about the family-in-need and I explained the situation and asked her if there was any help the church might offer them. I was expecting her to say, “how terrible”, or , “of course we’ll do something” or “Jesus Christ! That’s awful”. What she actually said, in a voice like aspartame was, “I was surprised you weren’t in church yesterday”. Really? Why? (I didn’t say that, but I felt like it). I go to church regularly – one visit every year. I go to the children’s “Christingle” Christmas service. It might be said, that some years I’ve been a bit late, but I can assure you that I always get there before the free sweets and oranges are given out at the end. However, I didn’t realise there was a register being taken. I wonder if “He” reads it?

The Christingle service is pure magic – think Derren Brown – not quite what you expect, but strangely fascinating.   The Sunday School put on a play and it’s a strange sort of parody of Christian life. The woman who writes the play has absolutely no idea how subversive her messages are. She is totally innocent. But the rest of us watch with baited breath, wondering what the latest heresy will be. Carol, the church warden, has been trying to have the plays banned for years. Last year they did a remake of The good Samaritan and the play was actually set on Christingle day, in the village. Like in real time. The story was that a passing backpacker was mugged by some hoodies. They took her phone and left her at the side of the road, battered and bruised.

I think I should just put in a little aside here. It’s worth mentioning that if this really happened here, half the village would be out (watching) and they’d point out the hoodies’ houses immediately. Then they’d walk her to the door and tell the hoodie parents what had been going on. The hoodies would have their i-phones confiscated for a week, and the victim would get a glass of sherry in the living room. This would enable the hoodie mum to ring round the other hoodie mums (“I just can’t understand it”) and find the rest of the stolen gear. Shortly after, a couple of fop-haird boys, in ironed striped shirts and M&S pullovers, would appear from the back of a waiting Audi estate. They’d return the stuff and go bright red apologizing, muttering towards the ground, “so sorry”, “stupid mistake” and “never happen again”. Yes, it’s zero tolerance for gangs round here.

Back to the play. So our backpacker victim lies in front of us, having been mugged. The acting “vicar” runs by her, he’s in a hurry to prepare for his Christingle service. Then all the children walk by, dressed as Mary and Joseph, sheep etc. They don’t stop because they want to get to the church in time for the play. Then all the parishoners walk by eager to get to church on time. The first Act ends with the “vicar” smugly announcing the first hymn, Silent Night. Then the real Vicar gets up and tries to distance himself from how he is being portrayed in the play. There is even an uncomfortable resemblance between the two. He announces the “real” hymn, no 176, and it turns out to be, Silent Night. The real vicar laughs uncomfortably. My eyes meet Carol’s, across the pews. I am amused, she clearly is not.

In the second act, our Samaritan play spirals into the unknown. Our traveller is eventually helped out by, wait for it, a Muslim. It’s a very brave attempt at political correctness.  I say “attempt” as our Muslim is actually played by a white boy with a painted brown face. Not really very PC anywhere else, but here in whitest West Witney, it’s a statement of inclusion.  I am actually half Egyptian and half Irish.  In London I’d be considered pale, but out here I’m definitely a racial minority. I wonder if anyone thinks he’s with me?

Our Muslim is a kindly open-minded man, who is coming to visit the Church at Christmas in a spirit of friendly interfaith. On his way, he stumbles across the victim and takes time to helps her. After caring for our hapless traveller, our Muslim hero encourages her to join him and they visit the church together. (Now, he’s expanding the flock?). Once in the church, our traveller-victim sees all the hypocritical bigots who ignored her in distress. One by one, led by the “vicar”, they apologies for their lack of Christian spirit. Even the hoodies are in church and give the phone back, muttering “so sorry”, “terrible mistake”, “won’t happen again”.

Brilliant isn’t it? Makes all those cutting statements about modern Christian life. But actually, none of it is intentional. The woman who wrote the play is in the front pew, smiling proudly.  Her fourteen year old son has his arm round her and kisses her (a lot). Carol, however, is about to blow her top. Maybe she’ll be able to disguise it as the holy spirit coming out of her head instead of steam. The real Vicar stands up and is clearly unsure of the message we’ve just “shared”. He moves quickly on to the nice bubbly thank yous – much safer ground. One by one he calls all the children to the front and thanks them. He gives the children heaps of hearty praise and asks us for a big round of applause. Just then he notices me gesticulating. He stops the applause in mid flow and says

“Someone’s been left out. Who is it? Who is it?”  He looks at me.
“Er, it’s the victim”, I reply and point to the girl who was mugged.  She makes her way to the front. The poor vicar goes red with embarrassment, he’s done it for real. I bow my head in contemplation, but shaking shoulders are a dead give away.

Back on the phone, Carol has asked me for a second time why I wasn’t at the Christingle service. She knows I’m not what she’d call a “Christian”. And that’s why I’m surprised she’s pushing me about my non-appearance in church this year. I’m an idol worshipping Hindu, who’s belief in karma and reincarnation mean I’m gonna be hot, hot, hot, in the afterlife. If I’d realised that one more tick on her Christingle register would have reversed that, then for sure I would have turned up – just in case she’s right, and god is a judgemental, unforgiving parent, who dishes out eternal tough-love for no good reason.  I steer the conversation back towards the hamper for my friend-in-need. She offers to see if there is some help. Then it dawns on me, she is trying to tell me that I should have been in church if I want to ring up looking for help for people. Just as I realise this, someone bangs hard on the front door and I hurriedly put the phone down. I open the door and can’t quite believe my eyes. It’s a man with two heavy boxes and a present wrapped in Xmas paper. It’s an amazing box of grocery blessings, dropped on my doorstep from heaven.  Thank god for the Witney Rotary Club’s hampers.

P.S.  Carol rang a few days later to say she had organised a Sainsburys voucher for the family.