by Jenny Palmer
a beaker of Vimto
I threw the Christmas holly out today. It was long overdue. The leaves had started to wilt and fade, and they were curling up around the edges. I hadn’t wanted to, but once the leaves start to drop, they become a nuisance. I was constantly having to sweep them up. I’d only kept it so long for sentimental reasons, wanting to hang on to the feeling you get at that time of year, when you are at liberty to stay indoors as long as you like, cosy up by the fire, and block out the world. I should have known, though. You can only do it for so long before the world starts creeping in again.
I have this recurring dream, the one where I am at some station or other, whose name I don’t know. I’m trying to book a ticket to somewhere, and I can’t remember the name of the place I want to go to. I am arguing with the ticket clerk,
‘Why aren’t you listening to me?’ I keep shouting at her, as if it’s her fault. The more I say it, the less she listens.
‘Why can’t you understand me? What is wrong with you?’ I shout. Then I wake up, feeling angry and frustrated.
It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have watched that You Tube video the night before, the one that gives the latest news on the virus. My brain felt crammed with superfluous information. And I shouldn’t have switched on the BBC World Service when I woke during the night. It’s always fatal. I must have visited just about every trouble hotspot around the world. I’m not a fan of Schadenfreude at the best of times. There’s no comfort in knowing that everyone else is having a shitty time.
We always used to bring holly into the house at Christmas. It was an essential part of our homemade decorations. We started the preparations early in November. My mother made the puddings and cakes. My sisters and I did our Christmas shopping one Saturday afternoon in Nelson. There was a bus there and back and time enough in between to scout around the covered market and visit a few shops. We invariably ended up in Boots, scouring the cosmetic section for a suitable box of Yardley soaps that my mother didn’t already have. The tobacconist’s shop nearby stocked all sorts of smoking paraphernalia. A new pipe would do for my dad, until he scotched all our plans by giving up smoking. We never gave each other presents. That would have been too time-consuming.
One year our plans went awry. My sister was rushed into hospital with suspected polio. She’d hidden the presents we’d bought in a corner cupboard in the other room without telling us. It turned out to be a false alarm, but our parents had to wait till she came home from hospital before they got their presents that year. We usually started on the decorations the week before Christmas, after we’d broken up from school. We’d sit there night after night by the open fire, religiously licking strips of paper to make ever-lengthening paper chains, which we strewed precariously across the oak beams.
Some years, we had a holly bush instead of a tree. They were easier to come by in the lanes and fields near the house. Mostly though, it was just sprigs, ideally with berries on, if we were lucky enough to get there before the birds had scoffed the lot. We stuck the sprigs behind the clock on the mantelpiece or behind the picture of the horse that my brother had painted with his painting-by-numbers set. We never gave the custom much thought. It was later that I learnt that bringing in holly or ivy was a pagan idea, associated with ancient Celtic rituals. It reminds people of spring and of life to come at the darkest time of the year. Only recently did I make the connection with the crown of thorns. We weren’t a religious family. Then again, we weren’t not.
We didn’t have electricity when I was a kid. All we had for entertainment was a battery- operated radio and a wind-up gramophone. It played old seventy-eights, left over from my grandparents’ younger days. They were songs that you could sing along to, like:
‘It’s a hap hap happy day
toodle oodle oodle oodle oodle ey’
‘Lazy bones, sleeping in the sun,
never going to get your day’s work done’’
Not that life was any easier for them. They had the First World War to contend with and my parents had the Second.
I couldn’t decide what was more disturbing about the dream, whether it’ was the fact that I didn’t know where I was or where I was going or that people weren’t listening to me. These days I seem to do nothing but listen. I listen to people on the telephone. I listen to the news on the radio and to BBC Sounds on my tablet. I listen to music on my CD player. I listen to actors on Netflix and Amazon Prime or Sky Go unless the subtitles are switched on.
When I thought about it, it was obvious. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before. The only thing I wasn’t listening to was myself.