Christmas in White Elm Street seems so dislocated, somehow, as though all those seemingly long years of my childhood happened to somebody else. What memories I keep return to me now like snatches of other people’s conversations, overheard in passing. They might mean anything, but I try to knit them together to make a story I will recognise, so I can claim them as my own and so reclaim my childhood. And Christmas of course is built on memories, so it’s a time when I miss my own most.
My sister has no such problem. She can still see those far off 1950s days. For me, as Apollinaire said: “Memories are hunting horns, whose noise dies away in the wind”. They arrive with a blast, promising drama, but then before I can fix them they fade. For my sister though, childhood memories are just like yesterday. So when I visit her, we talk about what I can only remember as fragments, like forgotten postcards carrying messages home that no longer make any sense. All gone. For me at any rate. For my sister, they are her yesterday.
“But we were poor,” she recalls.
How did Mum and Dad provide Christmas?
So among my fragments, what do I remember most? Dad banking up the fires with coke. Uncle Tiny’s eagerly awaited visits on Christmas afternoon amid the cake crumbs and the last of the jelly, playing the spoons and telling risqué jokes that made Mum shriek. “Ooh, Tiny, you mustn’t!” His piercing whistle that upset the budgerigar and made us all laugh. ‘Old Wellsies’, the pork butchers, and Dad’s passion for their pork cheese. Pearl arriving from London, and pulling up her skirt to warm her bum by Dad’s fires to the delighted outrage of the family.
We were innocent in those days, there wasn’t the rigmarole of marketing, and probably no attempt to get people to spend their money early since nobody had any. Christmas lunch was a chicken, for which Dad would have worked overtime through the year and saved up. Looking back, I have no idea how Mum and Dad provided Christmas at all. I wasn’t really aware of poverty at the time, since everybody in the street was in the same boat.
There was little religion to speak of then, not even carol singers – except on greetings cards. But occasionally the Salvation Army turned up in the street, my sister reminds me, and everybody turned out to watch. Snotty kids in their mother’s arms, men in shirtsleeves in the middle of washing after coming home from the factory, drunks reeling out of the Gardeners Arms, trying to join in and being told to shut up.
Nana always made cream horns
“We always had an egg for Christmas breakfast,” my sister tells me, and mention of Christmas morning rituals brings a hunting horn blast of my own. Excitedly creeping down my bed in the last of the darkness to seek out the stocking, lumpy with promise, then hugging it under the covers while I longed for dawn to declare that the fun could begin.
“Nana always made cream horns,” my sister declares, as though daring me to contradict. “They always had real cream in them. Nana always liked anything a bit naughty.” Indeed she did, and Nana’s taste for all things naughty went far beyond cream horns. Only we were a respectable family, and her adventures were carefully screened from the children in those closeted and tight-lipped conversations among the grown-ups. “Well, she’s your mother,” Dad would complain, chewing a match as he always did.
My sister breaks into my reverie. “We couldn’t afford real cream at other times,” she says. I was rummaging through the mental postcards for all the others featuring Nana, which mostly would have been by Donald McGill.
What few memories I have of Christmas are all of White Elm Street, however piecemeal. When they pulled the street down as part of the 1950s general slum clearance scheme, we moved to Castle Hill council estate. That was when I was 10. That represents the end of my childhood memories. I seem to recall nothing after that date.
Sadly, that’s true of my sister too.
“Why do you think all your memories are about White Elm Street?” I ask. There is a silence and I think she has fallen asleep. Then she says: “I think that’s when everyone was happy.”
Then, brightening, she asks: “Why are we talking about Christmas? We were very poor then.”
Fading memories of White Elm Street
There are greetings cards around her room, probably displayed for her by one of the staff. In the corridor brightly coloured twists of paper loop all the way to the lounge, where other residents are listening to a troupe of handbell ringers hesitantly playing carols. How many of the audience, I wonder, mouthing the familiar words to themselves, are singing their own childhoods, dreams remembered and cherished, or perhaps that came to nothing. Can they see more than I can? I spend so much time in the dusty attics of my own nostalgia, fruitlessly searching for the yesterday I’ve lost and which will help explain to me the me I am. My sister still lives there, in White Elm Street. My way back is a winding path now overgrown. For my sister, White Elm Street is just a 6B bus ride away.
I hug her and bid Merry Christmas to the nice lady at reception on my way out. As I walk to the car I pass an enormous illuminated Father Christmas. It’s begun to drizzle.