Now, I can hardly complain about Christmas. My former chef husband always cooks an incredible turkey and I baste in his glory. I have been able to leave my mother's warm embrace and step into the brawny waiting arms of a Christmas chef. I have never actually prepared the beast. Even when we lived in Australia — and still ate turkey in 40 degree heat, natch — it was broiled on the Weber by my father-in-law. The day itself is a piece of cake for me, compared with the stress it must cause many people, and those mainly female.
I can remember my mother trotting for years between kitchen and sitting room, under the irritable watery eye of my father, trying to cook and Be There while the presents were opened. Her black patent leather shoes, with the gold buckle and a little heel, were firmly on; a gin and tonic was permanently in hand; she sported a smart red A-line skirt under an apron and a film of worry.
Strange how silence is golden when it comes to the magical preparation of the festive meal. Lots and lots of advice, imprecations and special offers in that ghastly December countdown. But not a word about the way the day itself plays out. People who go from one year's end to the next never roasting a big bird are suddenly expected to be instant experts, and, if they are female, like as not they have also spent the preceding month online shopping, getting out of meetings to attend nativities and concerts, keeping three lists going simultaneously on which hat or bag of satsumas is needed by which child for which school event, often sprung on parents the day before ("Class assembly!", "Christmas Jumper Day!" (I kid you not), "Drumming!", "Choir and Clarinet!"... it's just endless).
Yet after Christmas Day has passed, I have never in my life had a conversation about how stressful the meal was to produce, while supervising present mayhem, enjoining grandparents not to shout at the children, preventing said children from turning on the TV/X-box/iPad, keeping further lists of who gave whom what, etc etc etc.
It's as though all that queuing at post offices for mislaid parcels, all that shoving through supermarkets and department stores, gut-turningly pricey boutiques and online — hoping for the Willy Wonka ticket of a Gift They'll Like — all the laying-in of goodies and wine and vodka, as though the shops will be shut for a month instead of a single day — all the gritty glittery craft passed off as the kids', the leaden mince pies churned out as though for a WI meet, the carol services meant to be gone to but never quite attended, all that… just transmutates into silence.
I am sitting alone at my mother's desk. The children, my husband, my brother and his family have all wandered away to my brother's house, there to watch Wreck-it Ralph, and play with a levitating helicopter toy (my Willy Wonka moment). The door slammed shut behind them over an hour ago.
My mother has tonsillitis and is asleep upstairs. The sitting room is clear of wrapping paper, bows, gift tags, sellotape, instructions, batteries, morsels of chocolate, empty glasses with dregs of Bucks Fizz.
The room is dark except for a table lamp shedding its comforting ellipses of light over the cards and CDs.
The only sound is the hum of the motor powering this computer. The dishwasher has just chirruped to let me know it's finished.
I have never had this Christmas moment before. It will never come again. It was all for this.
And the look on my daughter's face when she gave me her gift, bought and wrapped all by herself.