Poor Mr Fixit begins to suffer badly at this time of year. There’s his arthritis from the cold, of course, and tinnitus from the amusing chat of 10,000 visiting friends and relatives, but mostly it’s what you might call a chromatic intolerance.
Once, when the children were still small enough to be dragooned into seasonally appropriate activity with the bribe of a big meal, I thought it would be fun to celebrate Chinese New Year over dim sum in Gerrard Street. After a wait long enough for four greedy eyes to clock the towers of dumplings rattling past in all directions, we finally sat down to order; happy faces all round.
Not quite. Mr F, who had been, even for him, unusually quiet all this time, went to some trouble to position himself facing the wall, before finally croaking, ‘It’s very – RED – isn’t it?’ After all the hurdles I had anticipated and cleared to get us there, this came from nowhere. The only cure turned out to be eating himself unc0nscious, then lying down in a monochrome room for a week (no shortage of those chez nous).
To somebody of his disposition, and no doubt many thousands of Bauhaus purists around the globe, Christmas is a 24/7 minefield not just of social gatherings and cheap fizz, but redness. Red robins on Christmas cards, red Santas, stockings, baubles, holly berries, panettone boxes and ribbons. Even the sadists at the Lindt chocolate company market their reddest offerings at this season.
Clearly, if sanity is to be preserved, the only option is to flee. Last year we all did this, in what I carefully and repeatedly explained was a one-time-0nly breach of the No-Fly rule, occasioned by my having had an actual job for seven months. The twin results – long absences, and terrible temper during fleeting home visits – seemed to warrant a collective reward of some sort, so we all soared off to see lovely Mathew, the Catholic Jewish mystic, in Kerala. Jolly nice it was too. For once. But apparently it gave Mr F ideas, because by mid-November this year, he was nostalgically recalling, to nobody in particular, how lovely it had been, and how even more lovely Tobago was at Christmas time, with the added advantage that we didn’t know anybody.
‘Off you go, then!’ I graciously responded. ‘I’m sure it will do you good to get away from us all for a bit.’ This somehow didn’t seem to be what he meant. ‘I do feel the children are old enough to be given the choice of coming too. Don’t you think they should be allowed to decide for themselves?’
Actually, I don’t; what other upside is there to the poverty, exhaustion and general grief of parenthood but the occasional opportunity to pull rank? Mostly I was terrified that they’d jump at it, and I’d be left crimping mince pies and wrestling the goose with only the cat and Noddy Holder for company. Gratifyingly, however, they turned out, at least for now, to be as attached as I am to the sentimental revisiting of stockings, skating, carols, silly games, crackers, Advent calendars, overeating, overshopping, and overwrapping. So when I did muster the courage to put it to them, there was a general chorus of, ‘Off you go Dad!’ and ‘You’ve earned it!’ – which of course he didn’t want to do alone, either.
And so we reverted to the straining of mutual tolerance that marks this season even more than most. The tree, which in my fairytale world is eight feet tall, fresh from Narnia, and festooned from twig to turf with twinkling, shiny, brightly coloured things, even possibly a red thing or two, each sweetly redolent of happy times past and finished off with two tonnes of Lametta, ends up small enough to ignore altogether if you keep your gaze level, and dressed in virginal white. (I fought a long battle to add white candles, but he checkmated that by cunningly acquiring a white cat, which is far too silly to be allowed anywhere near fifty naked flames.)
That’s normally it for the decor, but this year we had mysteriously acquired two vast (white) cut-paper stars, slipped past him in a Kochi back street, which he forced himself to hang at some distance from the tree, possibly to avoid snow blindness. Thus having, in his terms, already turned the place into Stringfellows, he put up very little resistance to the (unbleached white) paper star lights round the mirror, and limited his further interaction with the festive space to vacuuming up the pine needles every half hour.
When it comes to presents, it’s no easier. As he is richer and considerably fussier than anybody else in the family, his list always consists of things too expensive for anybody else to buy, only sourceable from a small island off the coast of Japan, or both. Thus it was that this year, a large, perfectly rectangular package, immaculately wrapped with handkerchief corners in paper entirely devoid of red or green, appeared under the tree, labelled, ‘From Patrick to Patrick’. Natural modesty held him back from adding,’Happy Christmas!’ or ‘To the Best Dad in the World!’, but the idea lends itself to many attractive developments. If we all bought all our presents from everybody, not only would it save a lot of toing and froing in red vans, but enormous pleasure could be had searching out a peculiarly horrible ornament that exactly sums up a hated in-law, or punishing a tightwad uncle by forcing him to splash out on Sulka pyjamas. No nasty surprises, just the vindication of everything we’ve ever believed about families, and a bit of low-level accountancy in the New Year.
For my part, as most things I long for aren’t available for purchase (inner peace, a commission from the BBC, ten years off my age) the presents to myself consisted of learning to make slit pockets (sort of) and panettone (note for next year: don’t leave out the sugar), deep cleaning my bedroom (probably, in truth, more of a present to Mr Fixit), and finally getting rid of the last of last summer’s toenail polish.
And the children, no doubt wishing to spare their aged and infirm relatives a trip to the shops over icy pavements, the frustration of wrapping strangely shaped bottles and the dubious charms of chatting to strangers for two hours in the queue at the post office, each generated an Amazon link (yes, they do know and no, they don’t care) to be distributed around the family, with the result that their thank-you letters had not only to express gratitude, but also explain what they were grateful for:
‘Dear Grandma, thanks so much for the perfume. Taylor Swift is a pop star. The bottle is really pretty but it’s a bit bright for you. It smells like chocolate and bubblegum. I’ll bring it with me next time and you can try it.’ ‘Dear Grandpa, it’s a good thing you’re 87, as the game you gave me is an eighteen and I’m not allowed to buy it for myself. You might like it, it’s a very good outlet for bad temper. Would you like me to buy you a controller of your own for your birthday?’
So, between the four of us, with Mr F’s solipsism, my intangibles, and the children’s virtualisation, we are fast approaching the totally carbon-neutral Christmas of iTunes links and PS3 downloads, e-cards and e-thanks. It may be joyless, utilitarian, lacking in surprise or delight, bereft of stockings, anticipation, speculation over mystery packages, excited unwrapping, cats going mad in the tissue paper and trying everything on, all together and right away. But how very environmental it would be. And absolutely devoid of red.