Monday, 10 December 2012

How The Gimps Stole Christmas

I had a total hip replacement last December and couldn’t fly to Canada for Christmas.  The surgery was to correct a sporting injury, not to offset the effects of being really, really old. Although Chris, my producer here at MYPC, thinks it suspect that I refer to tobogganing as a sport – ‘Where’s the skill? How long did you train? Do you get points?’

Not flying meant Christmasing in London which, if all my friends had been in town, would have been a joy.

But they weren’t. The selfish lowlifes were in Ireland, Germany, Hastings and North Africa (yoga retreat). I was panicking when Emma, the ingrate skipping off to Frankfurt within days, said ‘What about Lisa? She’s great at Christmas. Spend it with her.’

Lisa is great at many things. She is great at friendship, evidenced by her rubbing my back as I threw up five times within twenty minutes upon getting out of recovery two weeks before; she’s great at laughing because she weeps when you’re really funny and I test myself to see how long it takes me to ruin her mascara; she’s great at singing, composing, conducting.

And yes, she’s great at Christmas. I lit up like a bulb, rang, invited her and she agreed. She’d come for Christmas Eve, stay the night, and wake up to presents with me the next morning.

I ordered all our feasting on line - I could only carry one bag at a time on crutches, and it banged repeatedly against the metal as I lurched – and the groceries arrived on the Eve itself.  I threw myself into making my sister-in-law’s irresistible spinach-dip-in-bread-bowl, a salmon-dill starter and put out enough Christmas cookies to choke a reindeer. I found the edited copy of A Christmas Carol Lisa and I had agreed to read aloud (with our friend Melissa, - who miraculously had materialised in London - if she were free), yanked up the volume on the Spotify Christmas channel and felt the waves of excitement and transforming joy the season inspires in me, something that other people find delightful and infectious or sick-making and repulsive (in almost equal measure) (maybe 60/40).

I also put a ‘Happy Birthday’ sign on the door. Not as a message for Baby Jesus, if he happened to drop by, but because, Christmas Eve is Lisa’s birthday.

She arrived just as the sun was setting, the lights on the tree making the front room glow, standing on the doorstep like the Elf of the Season (she’s even shorter than I am): bright-faced, dark-haired, green-eyed, timeless. We embraced.

I noticed as she made her drooling way towards the birthday cake, ready for her on the table, that even her speedy glee could not disguise the fact that she was limping. If I were someone who could raise an eyebrow I would have. Instead I said

‘Lisa?’ and pointed at her leg. She looked down.

‘Oh, yes, yes’ she said brightly. ‘My knee. I was painting rather a lot. I might have strained it. Up and down ladders. And steaming wall paper. A bit of sand-blasting. But I’m fine.’

She propped herself up on the sofa. We put pillows under the offending joint. I plied her with gifts and all the cards that had been sent to her, sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and the holiday kicked off.

In the midst of our second piece of cake and my third verse of the song  -  ‘How ooold are you,  how oolld are youuuuu’  - we heard a knock. Our heads shot up. Dared we hope? Could it be? I hobbled to my feet, opened the door and screamed ‘Melissa!’

‘Melissa??’ Lisa shouted

‘MELISSA!’ I hollered.

And Melissa, slightly deafened, it was. She hugged me and dived head first into the spinach-dip-in-bread-bowl, stopping en route to notice that Lisa had her knee propped up. She pointed.

‘What’s going on? You look worse than her. And she has a titanium spike in her thigh.’

‘Nothing. Bit tender. Too much plastering.’

Melissa narrowed her eyes, unconvinced.

‘Is it swollen?’


‘Does it hurt?’

‘A little.’

‘Can you walk?’

‘Not much.’

‘You should see someone.’

Lisa scoffed. I paused. It hadn’t occurred to me that Lisa should see someone. Anyone who didn’t actually need her rotting femoral head cut out and replaced with a ceramic ball and socket shoved into her through an incision 20 stitches long didn’t seem to me, at this point, to be someone who needed to see anyone.

‘Should she?’  I asked, feeling negligent.

‘She should see someone.’ Melissa stood in her jacket, looking ready to carry Lisa to the lift if necessary.

‘I’m fine,’ Lisa said. ‘Have a cookie.’

After ten minutes of protesting, remonstrating and finally accepting that Lisa was refusing to go anywhere further than six inches away from her cake, Melissa sat down with a red-frosted reindeer and a cup of tea, her eye warily on Lisa’s knee. I handed out the salmon and dill starter, picked up the edited Dickens and said, full of delight ‘Shall we begin?’

It is doubtless, dear reader, that you have heard of Charles Dickens and I am sure I may attest, without contradiction, that you have had some experience of his Christmas Carol. But if you’ve only seen this story adapted for stage or screen, only watched it on the telly in any of its deservedly famous versions, then, my beloved English-speaking comrade - you have got to read the fucker. It is unalloyed genius. It rolls from one perfect sentence to another. I challenge you to career to the final chapter without feeling uplifted and changed. Melissa, Lisa and I took turns, beginning

‘Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that - ’

And moving on through every exquisite, pulse-quickening, heart-gladdening phrase.

‘The writing, the writing’ Melissa would murmur between chapters.

We saw Scrooge through to his redemption, finished the dip, the salmon and most of the cookies and it was almost 11, time for Melissa to go. She took a parting glance at Lisa’s leg.

‘If you need a doctor – call me.’  (She said this not because she is a doctor, but because she has a car.) (She could drive us to one.)

I hopped on my good hip to the door, pooh-poohed the suggestion, wished her a Merry Christmas and said good night.

Lisa and I settled into the final hour of the day, Perry Como asking God to rest all gentlemen merry, the popcorn strung on the tree looking like a localised white Christmas. I kept my hand on Lisa’s knee, wishing it better, and she was comfortable enough to try to stand unaided and stagger to the kitchen (the home of more spinach-dip-in-bread-bowl).

I rose at the same moment, adjusting the volume on Perry – I love a good, loud ‘Joy to The World’  - when I was nearly toppled backwards on my crutches into the tree, hearing Lisa scream as though someone had just gunned staples into her eyes.

‘What!??’ I shouted.

She was pale.

‘It – it- hurts,’ she whispered.

I got her to sit back down and together we lifted her trouser to look.

A large, red throbbing mound was rising out of her leg where her knee should have been. It extended down to her shin. Resting and elevating hadn’t seemed to have helped it at all.

It was 11:10 pm.

Lisa and I looked into each other’s eyes and knew there was nothing for it.

Within twenty-five minutes of going – Melissa was back. The doctor we rang gave the name of the local A&E, open at midnight on Christmas Eve. Melissa knew the way.

I gave Lisa one of my crutches to make it to the car.

‘I got my hip replaced for this reason alone!’ I shouted as we made our slow, gimpy way to Melissa, standing outside her idling vehicle, all doors open for us and our support devices.

The streets were lit and quiet. We arrived at the emergency room of the all-night clinic in under 12 minutes. Whether it was because of the good humour in the car,  the delayed healing effects of Dickens or knowing we’d only eaten half the cake and still had half to go, Lisa was feeling better.  She was able to put weight on her knee and could even manage the stairs by herself. Melissa and I exchanged looks over her short, dark-haired self.

Had this been necessary?

If it wasn’t it was too late to ask because suddenly we were in reception, being met by a nurse who told us a doctor would see us shortly. The waiting room was empty but, sure enough, within moments a doctor emerged from his office, escorting out a mother, father and baby, closing the door behind them.

The young family sat and smiled at us, we smiled at them. They spoke Arabic amongst themselves: a remarkably handsome family, the little boy almost irresistibly alert and intelligent-looking. Lisa leaned across me to Melissa and whispered.

‘We’re the Three Wise Guys,’ and sure enough, we looked like nothing so much as attendants on this Holy Waiting Room Family.

The doctor re-emerged and called Lisa’s name. ‘I’m coming with you,’ Melissa announced and Lisa beamed her gratitude, walking suspiciously well across the room.

The Family and I continued to smile at each other. I couldn’t take my eyes off the boy who kept swivelling his head around to grin at me. I heard them exchange one or two words of English. I was emboldened.

‘What is his name? He’s very beautiful.’

‘Oh thank you! Thank you’ the father said, stroking his son’s face.

‘He had a cough but he’s fine.’ The mother looked at the little boy who, obligingly, gurgled healthily.

‘He is Philo,’ said the father, ‘”he who loves his father”’.

I was enchanted.  I wanted them to keep talking.

‘And – and does Philo like music?’ I asked.

It was the right question.

‘He LOVES it, he loves music. We sing and he tries to sing along, he dances.’

‘What do you sing?’

‘We sing Christmas carols. Arabic Christmas carols. He loves them.’

‘No!’ I shouted, in delight. What a thought. An Arabic Christmas hymn.

‘Yes!’ they shouted back, laughing.

‘Sing them, sing them for me!’  (You can see on which side of the delighted/repulsed scale I was hoping they felt.)

After a few moments of shyness and conferring with his enthusiastic wife, Philo’s father agreed. He would sing. (Delighted!)

‘This is a Christmas hymn he likes. We sing in Arabic, but it is a famous English hymn as well. It is about the joy of Christmas, “Ring bells, announce the love of Jesus Christ”.’

I leaned forward.  A Christmas hymn from the Middle East.  This was going to be good. I anticipated the aching beauty of an ancient chant, that spine-thrilling sound of the Muezzin’s call to prayer or a Jewish cantor.  Philo’s Father cleared his throat and began, in a sweet voice, his rhythmic Arabic lilting with the tune.

And he was right.

I knew the song.

It was famous.

But it wasn’t a hymn.

It was ‘Jingle Bells’.

I blinked rapidly, trying to keep my composure as mother and father sang the chorus together and baby Philo grinned and flapped and cooed.

They finished and I applauded wildly. Philo’s father was radiant.

‘You see? the same as in English.’

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that ‘Jingle Bells’ in English is the 19th century equivalent of Eminem’s ‘Shake that Ass’ – advice on how to pull, basically – so just thanked him, thanked his mother and laughed with Philo who, I could swear, winked at me.

Lisa and Melissa emerged, moments later, Lisa, unless I was much mistaken, looking slightly-shame faced. I introduced them to the family, we all wished each other Merry Christmas in English and Arabic (wishes all the more satisfying when you know Melissa is Jewish). As the automatic doors opened, letting us out into the cool, damp night, we turned to see the father holding up his baby son’s hand. Waving.

I asked Lisa if she wanted one of my crutches.

‘No, no. I seem to be better.’ She hobbled expertly down the steps.

‘What did the doctor say?’

Melissa pressed her car keys. The door unlocked.

‘Not enough cake,’ she said.

I raised both my eyebrows (yes, this I can do). I inhaled sharply.

'No. That's my fault.' I said. 'I bought the cake.'

Melissa shrugged. 'She needs more.'

Lisa limped to the car. 'He seemed a bit put out. I think he thought I was wasting his time,' she admitted.

We were home in ten minutes. Melissa freed us – and our crutches - from the back seat. I hugged her, back lit by the twilight-blue snowflakes suspended from the lamps lining the empty street. It was the last moment of Christmas Eve. Something imaginary and powerful was happening in the minds of most children (and the adults who had minds like mine) at that very moment. I held Melissa tighter and felt a surge of all things possible, of what people can do when they feel hopeful and loved.

'Urgent Care Department of St Charles's Hospital,’ she said, getting back in the car. ‘That's where I want to spend my birthday.’

'I'll book it,' I said, waving as she drove off.

Lisa and I tottered towards the building. Trees left on all night were blinking in one or two windows. The sky was close with clouds.

‘Alright. One of us has to say it,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I think that’s true.’

‘You’re more tiny than I am. And you look, I don’t know, more Dickensian.’

She laughed (I think this was her way of agreeing). 

And she asked for blessings on us, everyone. 

Then we went home and finished the cake.


Click here to listen to Philo's favourite carol: 

Click here for my sister-in-law's famous spinach-dip-in-bread-bowl. Add enough mayo to smother a very big Elf to death. (Not that you'd want to, of course.) (Unless you're one of the 40%...)

1 comment:

  1. I was thinking 'Huh, why didn't Emma say go down to Devon?" But, reading on, I could see that we couldn't have competed. Ah well, and you really don't want to hear me 'singing' Jingle Bells, or anything else come to that.