The End of This Road

It is a year to the day that I started this blog. It is two years to the day that you phoned to say that you had bad news. Two years since you told me that what happened next was “between me and my Maker.”

Two years is supposed to be enough time to have assimilated what has happened. I am supposed to stop talking about your death now. I am allowed to mention you in conversation as long as I am recounting cheery things; involving others in memories of happier times.

But two years is not enough time. Neither, I suspect, is three years. Or four. Or twenty-four. Or any number. It is only those who have not lost someone they love who think of grief in terms of a finite period.

Since joining The Dead Dads’ Club (as a friend has dubbed it) I have spoken to many people who have given up trying to explain to outsiders what grief is like. Everyone’s experience is as different as the love they have for the ones they have lost. But we all have one thing in common. We all agree that grief is now part of us, that it has changed us as all the big things in life do and that it is here to stay; to be lived with, to be carried along with us until we too have to leave, passing on the mantle to others who will bear it in their turn.

A month before you died you told me that I should “get out more”. It was a serious point, made in a conversation we were having about the sort of work I had had published up until now and what my plans were for the future. It was one of those chats which challenged me, which made me see how much more I have left to do. So that is what I am going to do now. I am going to get out more, with the sound of your voice and encouragement ringing in my heart.

I shall stop this blog today. It is time to take a different road. Writing this blog has helped me in more ways than I could have imagined. It has been different from talking and different from keeping a journal. It has helped me think through my experience and it has put me in touch with others who have been through similar times. It has opened up conversations, led me to read books I would otherwise not have read, showed the side of friends and acquaintances I did not know existed. It has also made me see how many gifts you gave me, Dad, and that the greatest one of all was storytelling. I don’t know what I will do with all these words. But I do know one thing: just as life goes on, so do the stories. There is never really an end to any of it.

 

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Failing to Reappear

Almost two years have passed since Dad knew he was dying and Mum stopped coping with life. Almost a year since I started writing about it. There are still times when I struggle with accepting what has happened. How can Dad be here one minute and gone the next? How can Mum be here – and yet not be present?

There have been times when I have half-convinced myself that once that I have gone through this grieving business and come out the other side, things will go back to normal. My mind plays tricks on me. I catch myself thinking I might pick up the phone and talk to Dad. Or Mum might get better and not need to be in a care home any more. The house will still be there for me. I will be able to go back. In time as well as space.

Sometimes it is a relief to sleep and not think of these things. Unless, that is, I dream. A recent nightmare had my parents back in their house for a visit after my sister and I had started to clear it. Dad was cross that I had been in his study, through his desk, through his neatly filed paperwork. Mum was jubilant. “Thank you so much for getting rid of all his books!” she told me, beaming. “I have been trying to get him to do that for years.” And in the back of my mind, a panicky voice was saying, “But we’re selling the house. Mum is supposed to be going back to the care home. Dad is . . . Dad is . . . Dad is not coming back at all.” I woke up with a gasp, reality rushing back in.

Dreams like this play on my feelings of guilt in the dark early hours. My thoughts spin on a destructive loop: Dad would not be pleased with what we have done since he died. We should have found a way to keep Mum at home. We should not have sold their furniture and given their books away. We should have found a cure for Mum. What would I say to Dad if he asked me? He would not like her being on a dizzying cocktail of drugs ranging from anti-psychotics to anti-depressants to sedatives to sleeping pills and goodness only knows what else. She has Asperger’s Syndrome. We know that now. That is not a condition that needs drugs. It needs sympathy and understanding and help with learning coping strategies. Doesn’t it?

Except that, it turns out, things have moved beyond that for Mum. She is so deeply locked into her own world now that tinkering with her drugs, trying to withdraw them, makes things worse for her. Hellishly worse. It has been tried and the results were terrifying: disorientation, panic, fear, hysterics, physical instability. And so she is back on the pills again. Back on her bed. Back in a state of drug-induced calm. And we have been advised to accept this. To realise that this is what is necessary. Because we will never have her back the way she was.

I went to see her yesterday. On the train from London I stared out of the window at landmarks familiar from my childhood: the station names I could recite by heart, the fields, the white weather-board and red-brick cottages, the Oast houses, the orchards, the river. I felt the familiar weight of sadness in my chest. Mum was always so proud of being a Kentish Maid. She would lecture me on the county’s history. Now she doesn’t talk at all, other than to ask me to leave.

After my short visit, I went to sit by the river where we scattered Dad’s ashes. “The house will be sold next week,” I told him – almost two years to the day that he rang to tell me his cancer was terminal. Once Mum has gone, will I have a reason to return to Kent ever again? Will I really make the trip just to sit on that riverbank and gaze into the silt and think of Dad paddling by this spot in his canoe? How can I accept the way things are? How can everything have changed so quickly? How it is possible that Dad is no more? That Mum has turned her face to the wall? Surely I could have prevented it?

The night before I had gone to see “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”. A few lines from the play echo in my mind as I stare into the muddy water and try to hold on to an image of Dad and Mum as they were:

“The fact of [death] is nothing to do with seeing it happen – it’s not gasps and blood and falling about – that isn’t what makes it death. It’s just a man failing to reappear, that’s all – now you see him, now you don’t, that’s the only thing that’s real: here one minute and gone the next and never coming back – an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced, a disappearance gathering weight as it goes on, until, finally, it is heavy with death.”

A disappearance gathering weight as it goes on. Yes. That is it. An acceptance is necessary from now on. An acceptance of Dad’s never coming back. And with that, the acceptance that Mum, as we knew her, isn’t either.

Ancient History

I have put off reading the love letters for a few weeks. I thought it was going to feel wrong: that I would be eavesdropping; spying on a private part of my parents’ lives that it was not appropriate for a child to see.

But that’s just the point. I am no longer a child. I am the parent of two adolescents who are not so far away from the age my parents were when they first met, aged 19. Is it this which gives me the distance I need?

There are letters for almost every day from May 1963 to July 1966. The overwhelming feeling I have once I have lined up Mum’s letters alongside Dad’s is one of privilege. Here is almost three years of conversation – conversation that normally would be lost to the tides of time. Amongst the records are the minutiae of a life that must be planned in pen and ink and not down a phone line or via the worldwide web. Details of train times and plans for weekends are noted alongside tentative dips into the waters of romance. These shy forays quickly blossom when Mum asks Dad to write to her in Latin. They are corresponding about meeting in London to go to Henley regatta together and Mum suggests she get up early to make the most of the day. Dad replies:

[…] sed surgere mane puellas quis, nisi cui non est ulla puella, ferat?

I have to look this up, of course, my own O Level Latin long forgotten. All I can understand is ‘girls’ and what I think is ‘jump up’. It turns out (as Dad has to subsequently explain to Mum) it is a quote taken from Ovid’s ‘Amores, Elegy XIII: The Dawn’.

[…] girls shouldn’t rise early – who would do that to a girl, save a man who has not a girl of his own?

Typical of Dad to try to make a joke in Latin. It has the desired effect, however, for soon Mum is calling him ‘O meae deliciae, Martinus’ and he is responding with ‘O lux et vita mea, Gilliana mihi carissima’.

Their shared love and knowledge of the Classics was a deep bond. The letter which brings this most starkly home is one Dad sends from his first visit to Rome in July 1963. He gushes that ‘imperial buildings and temples and basilicas and baths’ have him summoning up Ancient Rome and making him long to ‘learn Italian and take you there’.

They did exactly this in retirement, going to Italian classes together, Mum grumpy at the speed with which Dad overtook her in mastering the grammar. They hired Italian DVDs and turned off the subtitles to force themselves to concentrate and learn more quickly. They even set their SatNav to speak to them in Italian. And they visited Rome and many other parts of Italy together and with friends. When Mum was first taken very ill with anxiety and depression I sat with her and tried to distract her from her panicky thoughts, asking her where her favourite place on earth was. She suddenly stopped hyperventilating and smiled. ‘Italy,’ she said, her shoulders going down, her breathing slowing. ‘The sun. And the language. And the food.’

It seems appropriate that two Classicists should have left so much to document their marriage. Reading it now, in an age when the love letter has been replaced with images zapped from smartphone to laptop to tablet, it does feel as though I am unearthing a little bit of ancient history.

Love in Pen and Ink

When I was expecting my daughter, Mum got it into her head that I needed to sort through all the belongings that remained in my childhood home and either take them with me or throw them away. This was how I found myself on a dark, blustery December afternoon, crouched, eight months pregnant, in the attic of my parents’ house, sifting through boxes and bags and old suitcases.

I had always hated the attic, mainly because of the fear instilled in me from an early age that if I went up there I would fall through the floorboards, on to the soft insulation and through the ceiling of the room below. I hated the ladder – the rattling metallic announcement it made as it came catapulting down from the hatch. I hated the way that noise was distorted so that voices from the road outside could sound as though they were somewhere much nearer, lurking in the rafters with me. I hated the smell: the fusty, dusty, mildewed smell of old cloth and paper. And I hated the dark and the piles and piles of stuff, thrown up there, willy-nilly – a graveyard of possessions.

This time though, I was aware, possibly for the first time, that my mother had herself once been an excited and fearful first-time parent. That here, in cardboard boxes and old trunks and cases, were remnants and reminders of that time. As I pulled out a tiny, moth-eaten hand-knitted cardigan, a smocked Viyella dress, a teething ring and a plastic bag full of cards congratulating my parents on my birth, I realised that this would one day be the fate of all the items I was now amassing in preparation for my daughter’s arrival.

While I was sorting through old toys and clothes and school books, I sat down heavily on a grey metal-framed suitcase, only to find to my dismay that I had crushed it under the weight of my advancing pregnancy and that items were spewing from its sides, like jam oozing from a doughnut. I pushed myself up, intending to try to push the contents back – then stopped. The suitcase had been full of envelopes: hundreds of them. I shone a torch on them and saw the inimitable italic hand of my dad on some and my mother’s equally inimitable scrawl on the rest. I knew what they were, of course. I couldn’t bring myself to open them. It felt wrong – that while they were, at that moment, downstairs watching TV, drinking coffee, waiting for me to come down, I was up here, holding in my hands their youthful promises of love and devotion spilled out on to sheets of Basildon Bond in blue and black ink. They would never have imagined these pages would be read by anyone but each other. I couldn’t be the one to break the spell.

Fast-forward nearly twenty years, and I am now in full possession of those letters. I have sifted through so much of my parents’ lives by now that it doesn’t feel so bad, taking the letters out of the bag I carried them home in on the day we emptied our childhood home. I have read so many private things, gone through so many personal effects, been a silent witness to so many decisions made for me and my sister before we were aware of them. I haven’t read the letters properly yet, though. It has still felt like an intrusion too far. I am torn. Should I let their marriage rest in peace?

But watching my own children reach the age when my parents met each other for the first time, I feel a growing urge to open those musty, mildewed envelopes. I feel an overwhelming need to know my parents better – to understand them as the young people they once were, with all their hopes, dreams and fears. I need to know the man and the woman behind the labels Mum and Dad, in the same way that I sometimes long for my own children to see the real me behind the facade of (M)otherness.

And so I put aside a day in which to date-order the letters. I figure I am ready to read this chapter of their story, that I know it anyway from anecdote and hearsay, and that this is just more cataloguing – another part of the process of letting Dad go. I am not prepared for the surge of grief which hits me when I open the bag. Just that smell has me spinning back in time to the day in the attic when I first found them. I am undone by the force of my parents’ young love for one another, by the fact that for the best part of four years they appear to have written to each other almost every day.

‘What is the point?’ I hear myself crying. ‘All these words. All this love. All gone.’

As if in answer, the next envelope I pick up has a small bundle of photos inside. I flick through them, my face wet with tears, and see three photos of my dad in his late teens, sitting and talking to his parents. I gasp, dropping them, as though stung. A hand has flung itself out across the seas of time to wave these photos in my face.

Because it is my son in those photos. It is my son in that lanky body, that buzz-cut hair, that smile, that little frown, those gesticulating hands. My son is staring out at me from my father’s face.

So there it is. The point. All those words. All that love. It hasn’t gone. It is still here, triumphant, thumbing its nose at death while it lives on in new life.

 

The Storyteller

As Patrick Ness writes in ‘A Monster Calls’: ‘Stories are important […] They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.’

Dad knew the power of story. He loved nothing better than uniting a group with a laugh by telling a well-rehearsed joke or anecdote – even better if he could pull it off in another language. He would save up the memory of some funny incident that he had witnessed, or been party to, and retell it with embellishments and feigned accents. He knew how to hold his audience in the palm of his hand.

And he knew the importance of reading to us, his daughters. And how to read; bringing someone else’s story to life, lifting it off the printed page with empathy, dramatic tension, excitement, humour – and more of those accents. He knew when to pause, when to rush on at breakneck speed, when to stop for the night, making us beg him to read more, keeping us on tenterhooks for the next chapter.

Morning and evening, the Financial Times was his reading matter on his long commute in a grimy, sardine-tin-tight train. But the moment he walked through the door at the end of the day, that was when story time began.

When he read The Hobbit, I was there, with Bilbo, feeling the clamminess of Gollum’s cave and squirming at the horrible swallowing noise in the creature’s voice. When he read Kipling’s Just-So Stories I could smell that great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees. When he read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I could feel the fur coats and sense the change in the air, from the warmth of the wardrobe to the icy chill of a never-ending winter as Lucy passed through the portal into Narnia.

And then there were the fairy tales. My sister’s favourite was The Princess and the Pea. She was fascinated by the many mattresses on which the princess slept. (And she has always had a passion for peas, for some reason best known to herself.) Dad must have told her that story thousands of times and each time it would take on a different flavour in the telling.

My favourite was The Fisherman’s Wife – a strange tale of unhappiness and a deep dissatisfaction with life. For years, looking back, I had no idea why I loved it so much, other than having a need to hear, over and over, the lines, ‘Alice my wife, the bane of my life, has asked me to beg a boon of thee’. I liked the idea of a ‘boon’ – whatever that was – and let those words roll around deliciously in my mouth.

It wasn’t until Mum was spiralling downwards into depression, and ultimately psychosis, that I saw the real truth in the stories Dad had read to me as a child. By the time Mum was detained under the Mental Health Act, the witch’s curse was truly upon us. We were stuck in a fairytale: not the Disney sort where princesses swoon in the arms of chisel-jawed princes and every story is told in saccharine-sweet technicolour happiness. No. It was the kind where you find yourself locked in a tower, an impossible task set before you while panic and despair hang over you like an evil enchantment. Or the kind where you battle against thorns and branches, hacking your way through to the castle, only to find that everyone is asleep and you can’t wake them, however hard you try. Or the kind where a fisherman’s wife is stuck in a dark ditch and desperate to get out, but no matter what solutions are offered her, she seems incapable of seeing them for what they are, and so remains condemned to end her days in the dark ditch where she started.

When a psychologist finally gave Mum the diagnosis of Asperger’s I told him, ‘You have set us free – I feel as though I have been screaming inside a glass box for the past three years.’ Or a looming dark tower with no windows or stairs.

So yes, stories can be more important than anything. Sometimes they carry the truth better than anything else. And I will always be grateful to Dad for his gift of story to me.

Home is Where the Heart is

The house has been on the market for a year. It has been empty for eighteen months, since Dad died. For the first six months after his death, while Mum was still in the mental health unit, my sister and I would come and stay, sometimes bringing our children and dogs. We used it as a base while we sifted through our past – sorting Dad’s affairs; going through the cupboards and drawers; starting the long, painful process of getting rid of a lifetime’s accumulation of personal effects, photos, letters and clothes.

I couldn’t stay away. When I wasn’t able to get to the house, I thought of it almost constantly. It wound its way into my dreams. I would be driving somewhere or cooking or ironing and suddenly the house would appear in my mind’s eye and with it, a deep longing to be there would tug at my chest. I would feel an overwhelming urge to be walking up to the front door, to open it and let myself in to the parquet-floored hallway, to look out of that upstairs window to the green space opposite.

I was aware of how ironic it was to feel such a strong attachment to the place. While Dad was alive, I couldn’t bear to visit. The atmosphere was claustrophobic, oppressive. I regressed as soon as I walked in the door. I thrashed out at Mum, became easily irritated, felt reduced to a child again by the very act of sleeping in my old bedroom. I told myself I hated it and its suburban surroundings. I was cruel about the town and the people who lived there, sneering at my roots.

But from that first morning after Dad’s death, the house took on a welcoming, sunny aspect. It was as if it had been holding its breath through the storms and turmoil of the past, and now it could let go and relax. The dogs, who had never been welcome while Mum ruled the roost, were free to wander in and out of the back door. The grandchildren, who were expected to sit still, not bounce on the sofa and not make a noise, were at liberty to run through the rooms, laughing and whooping. The kitchen, in which my sister and I had never been allowed to cook, became the centre of our visits, my brother-in-law cooking up huge breakfasts which we all, dogs included, enjoyed. The radio was on, light and laughter filled the air. The garden was bursting with birds that I had not noticed in previous visits. The rooms expanded, embracing the increased number of people and animals, smiling down on us all. Where once I had felt I could not so much as breathe for fear of leaving an unwanted mark on Mum’s preciously guarded walls, I was now at ease – I had come home.

We couldn’t hold on to it, though. Mum moved into full-time care over a year ago. The property had to be sold to fund that. We knew this, even as we enjoyed those visits. And so we began the task of clearing the house. It was harder than watching Dad die. Or rather, it was an extension of that – a long-drawn out and painful one. We were stripping away the last remnants of his existence on this earth. For as long as the house was there, full of his belongings, his quirky systems for organising his life, his smell which pervaded everything, we could pretend that he would walk back into it again at any moment.

It felt wrong to be dismantling everything, to be entering the room my parents slept in, to be poking around in their personal space. It was a violation, to take his carefully ironed shirts from the shelves. How could I give his clothes to charity? How could I decide what should be kept, what donated and what simply thrown away? How could I allow myself to handle correspondence, journals, personal notes? And then there were the tragically intimate items such as toiletries, nail clippers, medicines, underwear – things that Dad would not have wanted his daughters to come into contact with.

There were unexpected finds too – a notebook full of Dad’s desperate scribbles from the time Mum had her first psychotic episode; a photo album Dad’s mother had made for him after his engagement to Mum which was a record of his life from birth to nineteen; a file of letters to and from his brother in South Africa in the 1970s; a monocle which Dad had insisted on wearing aged fourteen on discovering that his short sight was in one eye only.

Now I am sitting in the house and it is truly empty. Potential buyers have come and gone over the past twelve months, but we have finally found a young family who is ready to move in. I am sitting on the window ledge in the living room, thinking that the only other time I have seen this house empty was forty-one years ago. I was six years old and we were the young family, ready to move in. I chased my little sister round and round on that parquet flooring, laughter bubbling through us at the thrill of being in “our new house”. It was a new beginning, a time of exciting new possibilities and adventures – even aged six I knew that. I would be able to walk to school; my best friend lived down the road; there was a boys’ school next door where we would be able to swim and play tennis in the holidays. I was fizzing with happiness.

Today I am weighed down with sadness. My parents put their hearts and souls into this house. They made it a home. I did not always appreciate it or even want to be there. And now it is moving on, passing into the hands of another family who will put their own energy, hopes and dreams into these bricks and mortar. They will no doubt remodel it, as Mum and Dad did. They will knock down walls that Mum and Dad put up, they will pull out the kitchen and bathrooms of which Mum was so proud, they will modernise it, possibly beyond all recognition.

Yet, as I sit on this window ledge and look out at the garden, watching the watery January sunlight filter in through the faded floral curtains, I feel the house tell me not to mourn. This is a new chapter, I feel it say. And as I leave, setting the alarm for the last time, locking the door and walking out into the driveway, I know this is right. I am not a child any more. I have my own home in a different town, in a different time. Dad would not want me to try to hold on to the past. This is a new chapter, and there is no reason why it should not be even better than the last.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Mum has always hated Christmas. The excess of it, the surprises, the people we are expected to see, the mess, the noise . . .

For most of our adult lives, my sister and I have not been able to understand her attitude towards it. Why, for example, would she insist on calling at the beginning of September to ask us our plans? Why would she need to know that early on precisely where we would be convening and who would be invited? Why would she need to know exactly what we, our partners and our children wanted as presents?

‘Don’t tell me!’ I would blurt out, trying to interrupt her before she reeled off a list of the gifts that were all ready, wrapped and waiting in her wardrobe before the first leaves had fallen from the trees.

As children, my sister and I would be shielded from much of Mum’s festive-based anxiety. We spent Christmas either down the road from us at our grandparents’ house, or at our uncle’s. Mum was presumably thus spared much of the shopping and cooking and decorating and anything else that caused her stress.

Looking back, Mum is almost invisible in my early childhood Christmases. I remember playing games and watching Morecambe and Wise in my grandparents’ sitting room. I remember the tree, dug from the garden every year, sitting in its pot, covered in coloured lights and tinsel. I remember my uncle wearing silly Christmas hats. I remember him and my dad telling jokes and doing their Goon Show routine as they did the washing up together. I remember the meal around the dining table, its size struggling to cope with the extra people and food. I remember my cousins arriving when I was 7 and 9 years old, adding an extra layer of excitement to the anticipation of Christmas. And I remember the table eventually admitting defeat as we and our cousins grew bigger and the four of us took up as much place and food as our parents and grandparents. That was when we decamped to my uncle’s much larger house near Winchester.

My aunt always loved Christmas. In temperament at least, she was Bob Crachit to my mother’s Scrooge. She was an only child, and freely admitted that she was making up for her own childhood in the Christmases she now hosted. Christmas to her meant fun and noise and laughter and lots and lots of people. It meant dressing up for a lavish Christmas Eve supper. It meant a house decorated in every room, Christmas music playing and the largest tree I had ever seen. It meant ‘tree presents’ as well as ‘main presents’, midnight mass in the local cathedral, and food, glorious food. If there weren’t enough beds for everyone, beds were found or made up out of whatever was available. We played charades, went for long, frosty walks with their dog, watched films on the big TV in the converted attic room and we drank champagne long before we were legally allowed to.

And Mum could not cope with any of it.

My happy reminiscences of time with my cousins is marred by memories of my mother’s black mood which would usually kick in some time late on Christmas afternoon. I have no doubt that an excess of alcohol was the trigger, but it was a mood which had been cooking slowly along with the turkey since our arrival on Christmas Eve. No one was ever prepared for the explosion; either for what would cause it or how it would be manifest. One year it was simply the fact that my aunt had cooked ‘too many potatoes’ which then built to a full-blown rant on how my aunt ‘always did everything to excess’. Another year it might have been a rage over something that was happening on the political stage, prompted by an innocent opposing point of view from someone else in the family. It could also have been the simple case that my aunt, unlike my father, grandparents and uncle, had not spent years living alongside my mother, and therefore had not understood that the best path to take was often the one of least resistance. In any case, we were in her house, so why should she put up with my mother’s behaviour? And so the rows between Mum and my aunt usually escalated, scattering the rest of us to the four corners of the house to play with presents, watch telly, wash up or nap until the storm had passed.

As my teenage years progressed, I became more and more acutely aware of the effect of Christmas on my mother. It was a flashpoint in the year that I came to dread. Her depression would kick in around the time my sister and I went back to school and would darken and deepen along with the shortening days. By Christmas she was often stuck in a mire of misery that no amount of coaxing could shift. Until a match was struck and the rage was lit.

As adults, my sister and I tried to make things right. We invited everyone to our own homes, taking it in turn every year to have our parents for the Christmas period. But this seemed to make things worse, particularly if we introduced new ‘traditions’ or cooked food in an unexpected way. We grew to dread having our parents for Christmas and would phone each other after every visit for a post mortem, tallying off the latest transgressions and disasters.

The last time I had my parents to my house for Christmas, Dad was already very tired from managing Mum and was complaining of a sore leg. They both had chest infections. Mum was on antibiotics and obsessing over what time to take them, following me around like a lost puppy, whining and complaining and driving me mad. It was not a good time. It was, however, a million miles away from what lay ahead. Unbeknownst to all of us, we were about to enter the most frightening time of our lives. Mum was sliding towards a period of high anxiety which would lead to a diagnosis of psychosis and subsequent admittance to a mental health wing. And Dad was brewing a hideous form of cancer in his leg which would eventually claim him.

Last year was our first Christmas without Mum and Dad. Dad had passed away that summer. My grandparents are long gone and my aunt passed away unexpectedly six years ago. And Mum had already firmly turned her back on the world by then. Christmas is now a non-event, something she can choose to ignore. She stays in her room, as she does every day, and waits for it to pass.

I understand now that Christmas, for a person with Asperger’s, is something close to experiencing all their worst nightmares at once.The excess of it, the surprises, the people we are expected to see, the mess, the noise . . .

The irony is, Christmas in my house is no longer the noisy, surprise-filled occasion it once was. I have teenagers who sleep in and are no longer so enamoured with playing charades. It is a far more predictable event: a time for hibernation, reading and long walks.

Mum would probably prefer it.