My friend Maz, last of the '60s left-wing hippies, is living in London for a while, and sent me this article about her first Christmas there, without most of her family.
It reminded me of the Christmas that I spent on my own in Israel. I took a few days off from the kibbutz, and seeing as Bethlehem was packed out (unlike the last couple of years, but hey...if you wanna riot and shoot tourists and other people at random, you ain't going to get many visitors...), I went to Nazareth instead. It seemed so weird though to see Christmas decorations all over the old town. I had Christmas Eve supper at a restaurant full of family celebrations, and spent Christmas Day wandering around all the religious sites. And feeling such a total stranger. Out Cider....was what I used to drink then, an apple cider with a mule kick. But I mostly liked it for the name.
Anyway..Maz's story :
I walk from the bus to the train and on the way I have a haircut. ‘How brave!’ I hear you say. Indeed. The hairdresser is a very sweet and prettily French, two weeks out of Marseilles. We chat about the English weather and the English food, ‘but it’s a small price to pay for learning English,’ she says. Now I have a French haircut to see me off. Outside it is cold and windy, and although the fog has lifted, it lingers around some corners like a homeless thing.
Victoria is a swarming mass of coats and hats and vivid scarves and mittens, seething with Christmas cheer, and groaning under vigorously wrapped parcel upon bright parcel. The trains are packed to the brim, stuffed to their perambulating rafters, choked with elbowing arms and scuffling feet trying to fit.
This is the south eastern service to …Maidstone East, calling at Borough Green and Wroughtham, Beckenham Junction, Otford, West Malling, East Malling, Barming and … Maidstone East.
The huffers and puffers settle gratefully with exhausted sighs into seats, a moment to breathe.
Platform five for the … southeastern service to … Maidstone East. Stand clear of the closing doors. Stand clear of the closing doors.
The train sighs, shrugs and slowly, reluctantly glides off into the darkening afternoon. The river is flat as a waiting ironing board, unruffled, indifferent.
People get on, people get off. Tickets are fumbled for amongst the parcels and bags, and checked, ‘that’s fine, thank you, Merry Christmas!’ He is young and wears one blingaling diamond earring in his left ear. Will he get the other one for Christmas?
I think about how many miles he must have walked on this train up and down, ticket checking. A lot. How many more will he walk?
This station is Otford. This train is now fast to West Malling.
We are halfway. The train has begun to hum to itself, to relax and enjoy the excursion. It’s warm, and the windows are coyly beginning to steam up, just enough to make the lights of passing stations spread themselves out across the window panes in bright smudges. I can just see the outlines of horses in their blankets, snatching the last of the day’s grass, heading off to warm stables.
We are now approaching Maidstone East where this train will terminate. Passengers are reminded to take all their personal belongings with them.
It begins again, the Christmas bustle, the fetching down of bags and too many parcels and the shrugging on of heavy coats wrinkled from the journey and scarves and gloves. The chatter now tinged with an edge of excitement. Who is waiting? The platform is busy, a scurry of arrivers and greeters and excited children underfoot everywhere.
Hadil and Tayssir have come with Ahmad, and we are off into the beckoning town. Last minute shopping will not wait. Quick, we need a few things!
We have a Lebanese meal tonight. Humous with olive oil and coriander. Warm pita bread. Mjadara, the meal of the poor, a staple dish of fried onions, lentils and bulgar served with yoghurt. Deliciously my favourite! Lentil and rice soup, and olives. The children have been out carol singing with two from next door, Charlie and Joe. They are flushed with the cold and the success of their mission. 15 pounds and 67 pence in small change load their pockets. Smiling neighbours have been generous, happy to hear their voices, glad for the respite from Christmas preparations to stand at the front door and listen to the carols sung in English, strongly laced with Arabic.
Charlie doesn’t want any food. ‘It looks disgusting,’ she whispers to me. ‘You might like it if you try,’ I whisper back. She shakes her head. Hadil smiles, ‘you no like? Try, try,’ and ladles a spoonful of humous. Charlie stares at her plate. She shakes her head. ‘English children no like try Lebanese food,’ Hadil tells me in the kitchen, cutting tomato and cheese for the unadventurous children. I shrug my shoulders. ‘One day they will,’ I tell her.
We watch a dreadful movie and go to bed very late.
When I wake, it is light, and late. I am the only one awake. I get up and look out and feel restless. I go for a walk and start to feel something inside unwind. I find a narrow green lane full of bird calls. I walk for some miles in the bracing cold, listening to the birds. It seems as if all the birds in Maidstone have come to greet me this Christmas day. Halloo hallay I chortle in my joy. A robin hops close. ‘Hello pretty thing,’ I say, and it cocks its head. Its red breast is bright and flashes away among the trees. Not a soul is out. What do these English people do on Christmas morning? I know in my African home the children are all up in the hot early hours, staring bright-eyed at the waiting gifts, trying to contain their impatience with the sleepy grown ups.
When I get back Ahmad is at the door in his blue babygrow pyjamas. He looks along the road and smiles when he sees me. His head is full of tumbling dark curls and his eyes are so deeply brown they are black.
The boys are up and I tell them that it is time for presents. No-one here knows the Christmas routine. I keep forgetting.
‘Presents? Now?’ asks Amjad who is delighted with all things Christmas. His eyes are alive with curiosity.
We sit and exchange gifts. They like theirs. I love mine too. Body cream and bubble bath and a whole, big boxed set of make-up. ‘Be Beautifully Bronze’ it says. Powder and blush and base and eye-shadow and ‘pearls’ for the cheeks in case the blush doesn’t work. ‘You like?’ Hadil asks. ‘You wear?’
The last time I tried anything of this nature was when I was seventeen. ‘Sometimes,’ I am trying to be truthful. She is satisfied.
Hadil makes breakfast. Amjad has five mince pies along with his egg and cheese, and I start to cook the turkey. I am mildly nervous. This meal is the focal point of the visit. I stuff the bird with my own concoction, bread crumbs, and cashew nuts, and parsley and rosemary and tomato and pepper. Hadil is addicted to pepper. She has it on everything. I leave some stuffing out to cook separately for myself.
We play a game while the bird slowly cooks, Amjad, Raed, Hadil and I. Twenty Questions, their favourite. Hadil bravely plays all our games. Her English is getting better, even though she keeps calling the kitchen a chicken, and the boys laugh every time.
The turkey is ready, and we eat it with brussel sprouts (very traditional) done in butter with almond slivers (my own recipe), sweet garden peas with mint, and rice and roast potatoes. Raed asks if we can have humous with it. Why not?
‘Wow this is good,’ says Tayssir. ‘Not so bad this English cooking’
Amjad is in seventh heaven, his mouth full of everything except brussel sprouts. ‘These I don’t like, I hate,’ he tells me with an apologetic smile. Ahmad has vigorously mixed everything on his plate up into a murky mash. When he has finished mixing, he smiles his two-year old smile and refuses to eat even a teaspoon of it. He gets a sweet and the insides of three mince pies instead. After all it’s Christmas.
By now it is dark outside. We haven’t seen the sun all day, not even a sliver. We talk and play games (I learn a new Lebanese one) and watch movies and eat cake and mince pies and drink ginger tea.
I understand a little Arabic by now. Tayssir has bought an English-Arabic dictionary. I ask Amjad, who has the best English, why none of the words that he has taught me appear in the dictionary. ‘That is old-fashioned Arabic in that book,’ he says. ‘I am teaching you the modern Arabic. The cool Arabic. So that when you go to Lebanon you will know what to say.’ I thank him, and decide not to buy one for myself. I listen more carefully. It is very difficult, but some things I know off by heart now. Not that I can say them. I probably have a vocabulary of about ten words, mostly related to Ahmad’s activities. ‘Come, stop, sleep, what do you want, this, eat, sit, no, pooh, daddy.’ I am younger than he is language-wise.
We wake the next morning quite early. We are off to a boxing-day meal at Sally’s house (Pam’s cousin. Pam introduced me to Hadil.) When we get there the table is laden with Christmas things, snowflakes and streamers and candles and shining cutlery and glasses and Christmas plates and sweets and nuts and bowls of fruit.
There is an angel in the kitchen, Joanna. She has Down Syndrome. She hugs me as if we have known each other forever. I feel so very happy, Cathy is with me today.
We start a turkey meal all over again, this time also with cranberry sauce and bread sauce and apple for the pork, and honeyed parsnips and angels on horse-back and spicy beetroot and roast vegetables. Sally has made a rice dish for me.
Raed asks Jeff is there is any humous. Jeff asks Sally what humous is. Sally asks Hadil what humous is. Hadil asks me to explain what humous is. There is no humous.
We drink warm fruit punch and juice. Ahmad vigorously mixes everything on his plate up into a murky mash. He refuses to eat any. He eats a lot of cranberry sauce in a little dish instead.
Later there is Christmas pudding with brandy butter, and apple pie with cream and cheesecake and mince pies. Amjad has a gleeful plateful of everything. And four mince pies. We clear the table and we play pass the parcel. We have to answer questions if we want to unwrap one layer. We mostly get them right. Ahmad gets the gift. He tells us ‘truck,’ in Arabic. We clap and he unwraps a small wind-up walking toy which does not leave his hand for the rest of the afternoon.
It is time for cake and mince pies and tea, Amjad eats three more mince pies. ‘This is my seventh not counting yesterday!’ he whispers.
We lazily talk about being Christian and being Muslim. Sally and Jeff are devout Baptists. ‘Happy Birthday Jesus’ is on the wall in bright colours. Amjad asks me what that means. I have forgotten that he does not know the Christmas story. I tell him and he is enchanted. Hadil and Tayssir are non-practicing Muslims. The talk is interesting. Amjad listens carefully, and asks a lot of questions. Raed who is easily bored, falls asleep. Ahmad plays with his wind-up walking toy, and manages to secretly whip some decorations off the tree to put on it.
We drink more warm punch for the road and off into the freezing night.
Bed is warm and enveloping.
Hadil is moving house, maybe tomorrow; she never really knows what the time-frames of the authorities are. We get up and start to pack. She has accumulated a lot of stuff from here and there. Packing boxes reminds me of home. I think about my family and I feel a tugging sadness.
A quick lunch and I am off home again. Ahmad and his wind-up walking toy wave goodbye at the door. He says my name in Arabic, Mariana. ‘Kiss, buzi!’ and I rush for the station. The train is packed with tired over-fed, over-watered, over-presented, but happy people.
London is still light when we get in.
I brace myself and Victoria bursts upon me again, flooding me, gulping me in.
I catch the tube, a heaving, swaying worm, and am glad to get home.