One year, 2006 I think, Elaine and myself had an alternative Christmas Day – on January 19th.
It came about because of Elaine’s nearly step- dad Leslie. I say nearly because Elaine’s mum sadly died just before they were due to marry, but Les remained close, especially to Elaine.
He was a nice man but difficult to get to know. The phrase ‘solitary as an oyster’ could have been written for him.
After mum’s death he liked, on occasions, to take Elaine out for lunches, though she dreaded his driving. So as we had no idea what to get him at Christmas we decided to take him out for Christmas dinner on the day itself.
First time was a place near Salisbury.
Oh dear. They were grossly understaffed and over booked. The dining room was uncomfortably packed. No music at all, so we were all listening to each other talk. A strange burning smell announced the early demise of the Christmas puddings.
Service was sloooow, then seemed to stop altogether. The food, when it came being fair, wasn’t too bad, except for the charred puds. We were trapped in there for six hours plus, Les seemed ok with it all but Elaine and I hated every minute.
The following year we tried again at a place near Poole.
Oh dear (again). They had jammed tables in wherever they could, it was heaving and hot as a Turkish bathhouse. Music was too loud and not even Christmassy, and people were talking too loud because of it. Kids, who obviously did not want to be there, were moving around, playing electronic games or jabbering on their bloody phones- as were many adults. Worst of all the food was unremarkable and easily forgotten.
All of this passed over Leslie’s head completely. For a thin guy he shifted a lot of rations, then afterwards he wanted to walk it off, so we headed for Sandbanks and a walk along the shoreline.
It was evilly cold, and walking back the wind bit right through us. Les didn’t seem to notice.
By the time Elaine and I got home my nose was streaming, my throat was akin to a piece of raw meat and I couldn’t stop shivering. Elaine was frozen to the bone.
Over whisky with honey and hot water, we decided that we deserved another Christmas, an alternative day to make amends.
January 19th was settled on to avoid our wedding anniversary (29th Dec’). Elaine’s birthday (7th Jan’) and the dates of my immediate families’ deaths ( Jan’ 21-22 & 24). With the advent of what has since happened its plain to see why I’m not a January person.
We had a tiny fir tree that I had rescued, which stood 15 inches high in its pot, so that became our Christmas tree for the day. We put some small baubles on it and tinsel too, but no lights as it wasn’t man enough, but it served very well.
There was a small chicken with all the trimmings for the Christmas meal plus a saved pud, and a budget was set for presents at ten pounds each (though we did both cheat a little here). Christmas Carols came via CD.
Little presents stuffed in ankle socks were there to wake up to, then later we opened the ‘bigger’ presents over tea, coffee croissants and fizz. Due to our budget they were mostly crap from cheap or charity shops though Elaine was quite taken with her coloured wooden set of clothes pegs.
The rest of the day we fooled around, read books, watched TV and then prepared the meal together for early evening. It was all great fun, and we always did agree it was one of our best Christmas’s ever.
December 25th Christmas Day 2020.
I was dreading waking up alone this morning and it is no better than expected.
In these later years we always tried to spend Christmas day alone together. We’d do Christmas stockings for each other to open, in bed first thing, with tea and coffee.
Afterwards Elaine would go off to sort out Bruce while I would make a start on preparing the veg’ etc for dinner later on. Then, when Elaine returned things would go much as I have just described above as the alternative Christmas Day.
It was never any use trying to get her to wait and open some presents later on in the day. As I stated in an earlier blog, she was like a big kid at Christmas and couldn’t contain herself where presents were concerned, whether giving or receiving.
We speak briefly on the phone, Elaine sounds sleepy but is cheerful and I tell her I’ll be there around 1 o’clock.
Quite honestly it’s bloody miserable at home without her. I can’t bear to listen to the carols on the radio, though I’ve always loved them in the past. So I tidy up the house and prepare Christmas stockings to open with Elaine later. She has already told me where my stocking presents are, so I sort out his n’ hers and am ready to leave home by 12.30.
At the last minute I remember a box that arrived a while ago from Elaine’s friend Kimberly, who lives in the USA/Canada, and I take it with me as well.
When I arrive at Forest Holme I find a genuine Christmas spirit is abroad at the hospice.
The staff have given presents to all the patients and Elaine has got a lovely deep green bed cover with a gold pattern on it and the Charlie Mackesy book, The Boy, The Mole The Fox and the Horse, and though she already has a copy it is a wonderful gesture from them.
Elaine cannot concentrate too long on any one thing. Her co-ordination is becoming slightly clumsy and her eyes close frequently. I figure the drugs are on the increase.
She wants to open Kim’s box first and my pocket knife makes short work of the packaging. It is full of fun and delights. It is as though Kim somehow knew there would not be another chance, another Christmas. There are cosmetics and perfume for Elaine and quirky toys etc for us both plus four sets of toy antlers to wear on your head. Typical of my wife she loves these the best and with a little help pops on a set with small flashing lights, which she keeps on all day.
Her lunch arrives and she picks at bits and pieces of the meal-I help out a bit, but she does make a better job of the ice cream that follows.
We then have our stockings to open, though it’s me doing most of the opening. It’s fun, but bittersweet, isn’t strong enough to describe it all for me.
One silly item Elaine loves is a LED battery powered ‘church candle’ about four inches high. When switched on it has a soothing deep orange glow and it’s placed on the chest at the end of her bed, where it stays.
The hospice has become quite noisy. Christmas seems to have cheered everyone. We keep the doors open so as not to be shut off from everything.
There are visitors in relays for the other patients, and the old boy, Bill I think, whose room is further up the corridor has his TV on too loud, but no one seems to care.
The hospice staff constantly check-up on Elaine to make sure all is ok, I cannot praise them enough. They do their work without any real intrusion on our time together and all seem so pleased to be there.
Elaine’s best pal Julie arrives to visit mid-afternoon, which gives me a chance to get out for a walk around and phone Colin, Elaine’s brother, and others. Due to the lockdown visitors are not encouraged generally, and as Colin lives outside the area he cannot visit at all.
I walk around for an hour or so. The air is crisp and refreshing but it’s all so surreal, like I’m playing out a part in a script and because I know the final act is imminent I want to hit pause and hold it there forever.
Back at the hospice Elaine is nodding off then waking, then nodding again. Julie and I talk awhile then struggle to hold back the tears as we hug our goodbyes. I will see her shortly as she and husband John have invited me to dinner at 5.30’ish.
Elaine still has her antlers on though they keep slipping as she falls asleep. She is obviously tired so I sit quietly beside her holding her hand and trying, unsuccessfully, to make sense of this day. Later I hug and kiss my darling goodbye and reluctantly leave around 5.30.
It is only a short drive to Julie and John’s home, and I’m grateful for the company the wine (one glass) and the meal, in that order.
Thank God for this couple, their kindness and friendship knows no boundaries.
I’m home by about 8pm. I was tempted to call in at Forest Holme on my way back, but Elaine would most likely be settled for the night and not wanting to disturb her I decide to call it a day for Christmas with my wife.
The Lodge is dark and cold, everything just as I left it hours ago. The Christmas tree looks forlorn, forgotten and embarrassed in its traditional corner.
As I sit on the settee and memories of so many warm and joyous Christmas times in the past, in this very room, come flooding back to me I am simply overwhelmed.
I know this has been the last Christmas together for Elaine and I. I also know that it’s this bastard I’ll remember down through the years without her.
How the hell will Christmas ever be without Elaine.
The idea of a Merry Christmas without her infectious joy and happiness for it all is to me right now, utterly impossible to imagine.
It’s such a cruelty that this should all happen at this time of the year. The memories will flood back as constant as the season, and just as bitter.
Tears trickle down my cheeks and though I fight it, I can’t stop the flood and weep uncontrollably.
How can such utter misery exist now, where such happiness lived before?
I cannot help but wonder where I’ll be this time next year, what pain will I be feeling?
Starring at the blank TV screen I find no answer, a voice inside says, “Ask yourself next Christmas Eve.”
To be continued…