I was sitting alone in my local fish shop with cod and chips and mushy peas and an amphibious-looking gherkin on an oval plate. My hangover was reprimanding me lightly but not without compassion.
Splayed in front of me was a very untypical Zola novel called A Love Story, about a doctor and a widow who strike up a clandestine romance. The descriptions of her beauty were breathtaking. It was my father’s book. At my elbow was a pot of tea. The café had a frieze of glazed sludge-green metro tiles. The rain was spitting against the window. I could feel the scent of the deep fat fryer permeating my clothes and hair and skin, perhaps my blood and organs.
A steady trail of men, high on hope, were walking into the nearby betting shop. Fairy lights were being thread into the branches of a sycamore tree opposite by a man in a high-vis vest. I was so happy. How could such flagrant self-indulgence even be legal?
More and more when I find myself thinking, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly,” I am trying to counter with a spry little, “Sure you can!” None of this comes naturally. It requires no small contortions of the brain.
Sometimes I try to see myself the way an unreconstructed 1970s wife might look upon her portly, camel-coated, wheeler-dealer husband. He works hard. He deserves his treats. Give him a break. Don’t disturb him. I half-wish she would bring me slippers and a cigar sometimes. Sherbert bonbons in a silver dish. “Yeah, right,” she rolls her eyes, and the rest. “Don’t push it, sunshine.”
Pleasure seems very important just now. I remember wandering round the school playground singing with my friend Ellie: “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think, Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself while you’re still in the pink … ” If it was true then, it is just as true now. I don’t want another year full of catchphrases such as “the morbid the merrier”.
My thoughts in the café naturally turned to Christmas: that most glossy of seasons, which is throbbing, neon, on the horizon.
There is a certain degree of embarrassment between me and Christmas now. We have so much history that although a great deal of goodwill still exists between us, we don’t quite know how to face each other. Also, I am not sure either of us can say with hand on heart that we’ve behaved as well as we might.
I have given Christmas my all (going to Rome to buy decent advent calendars, making a 6ft yule log, embroidering reindeer on cushion covers in the small hours) and watched it chew me up and spit me out. Yet when I have failed to meet its insane demands, once or twice, I have felt the sting of disappointment well into early March.
I would love a fresh start with Christmas but can that be possible when the facts are these: I have loved Christmas as much as I have loved anything? I worry that it wants more from me than I have to give. We can never be to each other other what we once were when I was little, and it was everything to me. It is a bit hard to forgive Christmas for that.
Still, I am all for building bridges, so I will continue trying to redefine this time of year in a way that makes sense to me.
A superstar once told me people spend all their time trying to become famous and when they get there they realise they can’t stand it. Is that a good metaphor for me and Christmas? I hope it isn’t so.
Is Christmas merely the name we give to a collection of symptoms including greed, sorrow, hope, apology, gratitude, electric cheer, compulsive list-making, mourning, compassion and heartburn?
In the fish and chip shop, my good mood was drooping fast. The waitress came and asked me if I could manage a pudding. I shook my head. She looked at my jottings.
“Christmas list,” I said. “Twenty-five for lunch. The butcher said two 5 to 6 kilo turkeys instead of a large one. ‘Yes, two young ones is what you want,’ he had said, ‘because the trouble with an old bird …’ and then I actually had to fake a coughing fit in order to prevent him from finishing the sentence.”
“Fantastic,” the waitress smiled. And then, “This year it’s just me and my Mum.”
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt