It’s only almost Christmas
here’s a Christmas short for you. It’s called ‘The Footballer in the Tree’. It, like all the others, is based on a true story. I never met any of my Nans, but I had a Great Aunt Phyllis, a salt and pepper grey-haired boozer, as short as she was round and with an irreverent sense of humour and a toothy smile. This story is based on her Christmas visits to our council house up on the Linksfield Road council estate.
Nobody remembers exactly where the footballer came from, but most likely he was a casualty from a previous Christmas. I’d found him inside a battered Quality Street tin taking refuge among the 00 scale soldiers. Minus his stand, his initial reason for existing had come to an end and so he would have found his way into the Quality Street tin where he would soon become a barrier for the soldiers to hide behind or maybe to play the role of giant invader in their 00 scale world.
He wore the red shirt and white shorts of Manchester United and as a new fan of that team, I felt it my duty to liberate him from the dangers of 00 scale warfare and elevate him to a position I felt worthier of him. My Dad had said I could put the footballer in the tree and so I’d placed him as high as I could up in the silver, tinsel branches.
We hadn’t long finished Boxing Day dinner when the twins asked if they could go outside to play with the kids from Dunstan Avenue. I, on the other hand, decided to stay indoors and play with my spangling-new toy Dalek until the fireworks began. There were always fireworks when Nan came to visit at Christmas.
Come three in the afternoon and Nan was dozing peacefully on the settee, bathed in the soft glow of the Christmas tree lights. Up at the dining table, Dad, Uncle Gill and Uncle Chris played crib, sipped tumblers of Bell’s whiskey, and puffed on fat cigars, just like they’d seen their western heroes do a thousand times at the local flea-pit.
Nan’s grey eyes opened slowly. Like an ancient reptile waking from a long winter’s hibernation. Her jaw lay back, her mouth hung half open, her top set resting comfortably on her bottom set. After a moment, she smiled to herself and sitting up, plucked my Action Man and my sister’s Cindy from the small table beside her. With nimble fingers she stripped both dolls naked: Action Man of his sailor suit and Cindy of her air hostess outfit. Using the arm of the settee as a makeshift bed, she thrust the two figures together. The position she was going for wasn’t as easy as to achieve as she’d hoped, because Cindy’s knees didn’t have joints like Action Man’s, but she was always a determined old bint and so before long she had the two figures shagging.
‘Go on my beauties,’ she giggled ramming Action Man’s hips back and forth.
Missus Next-door sat alongside Nan sipping a glass of sherry through pursed lips. Just as Action Man and Cindy were getting into their stride, Mum returned from the coal bunker with fuel for the fire. ‘Jeezus Christ, Claris, what the hell are you doing?’ Mum said dropping the coal scuttle onto the rug.
‘Reminiscing!’ Nan said. ‘Missus N and I,’ she continued, ‘are taking a walk down mammary lane. Isn’t that so, Missus N?’
Missus Next-door stayed tight-lipped and increased her grip on the glass of sherry, hoping, I suppose, that if she gripped hard enough and for long enough, she might somehow be spirited away from this dreadful scene.
‘Your man here,’ Nan nodded down at Action Man, ‘Is just desperate. Just desperate. Climbing the walls, he is! He’s been away at sea, Missus N! And that, I’ve no need to tell you, Missus N, can do the most terrible things to a man’s donger.’ Nan paused for moment and looked down to where I sat. ‘Don’t join the navy, son; no good will come of it!’ she said.
‘Come on now, Claris,’ Mum said. ‘Whatever will Missus Next-door think?’
‘I know what exactly what she’ll think. I can tell you that much for tuppence.’
‘Please, Mum,’ Mum said.
‘Who are you calling ‘Mum’?’ Nan said. ‘I’m not your Mum. I’m his Mum.’ And she pointed to where Dad sat hiding behind his hand, in the hope that the emerging scene would somehow, miraculously resolve itself.
‘Your mum, now there’s a tale to tell,’ Nan continued. ‘All fur coat and no knickers, that one,’ she said nudging Misses Next-door hard on the arm.
‘Bill, can you sort this out please?’ Mum said. Now, usually, there would have been one almighty row. But Mum, unlike Nan, cared what the neighbours thought.
‘Right-o, you filthy pirate,’ Nan said turning her attention back to Action Man, ‘that’s enough of that old nonsense.’ And she separated the two figures. Mum and Missus Next-door visibly relaxed. But then Nan said: ‘Here, what about a new position?’ and she flipped Cindy onto her back and set Action Man to work again. Laughing like a drain, Nan leaned in close to Missus Next-door’s ear and in a pantomime whisper, said. ‘Sure, but you must remember what fun it was to play hide the sausage with your Ernest.’ And as she said it, she rolled the figures over so that Cindy was now on top.
Missus Next-door let out a scream that was as thin as a reed. ‘I really do think I should be getting home,’ she said.
‘Getting home?’ Nan interrupted. ‘You don’t want to be getting home just yet. Feck, it’s not like you live a mile down the road, dear, is it? And let’s be frank, no self-respecting man’s going to want to be rummaging about in your old bloomers, not even in this dying light.’ And laughing, she nudged Missus N so hard that some of the sherry in Missus N’s glass spilled onto her blouse.
Over at the dining table, the card game had ended, and so Dad no longer had a hiding place. For a moment he let his head drop, then with a sigh that I could see rather than hear, he downed his whiskey and got up from the table.
‘Come along now Mum, that’s enough,’ he said.
‘Now, don’t you feckin start Billy love,’ Nan said. ‘You want to set your own house in order before you come over here spouting off the what’s-what with me.’ And she glared past Dad to where Mum stood, arms folded, glaring right back at her.
‘And what about poor Missus Next-door, Mum? How’d you think she’s feeling with all these shenanigans going on?’
Nan looked genuinely shocked. ‘Oh, Missus N, what must you think of me?’ she said. And she dropped the two naked figures into Missus N’s lap. ‘There,’ she said. ‘Feck away till your tits fly off!’
Missus N looked at the two naked figures in her lap like they were shite from one of the stray dogs on the estate: ‘I really have to go!’ She said. And she made to stand, but Nan was having none of it and she pulled Missus N back down onto the settee.
‘Don’t go yet, love,’ she said picking up the two dolls again. ‘I’m thinking we could take it in turns getting them to do positions. Like in that randy book, The Carnal Souffle!’
‘For God’s sake, Mum!’ Dad said.
Nan placed the two figures on the small table by the tree and took up her half-finished glass of brandy. ‘What now?’
That was the moment Dad had been waiting for. He lunged for Action Man, but Nan new what his game was and pulled away, and in so doing sent the contents of her glass onto the Christmas tree. There was a blinding flash. The fairy at the top of the tree lit up and the tree burst into flames.
You’d be amazed at how fast old people can move when they think they’re about to be burned alive. Missus Next-door was first off the blocks. Ditching her sherry, she hurtled past me and Mum and headed for the exit. And she would have got their first if Nan hadn’t caught hold of the back of her cardigan and dragged her back. Not to be outdone, Uncles Gill and Chris – who had spent the whole time watching the drama unravel from the relative safety of the dining table – salvaged the bottle of whiskey and whisked me, and the bottle, out into the back garden where they both took another stiff drink to calm their nerves.
Back in the lounge, Mum swung wide the bay window and Dad whacked the tree for six out onto the grass using the cricket bat Uncle Gill had given me for Christmas. The tree landed with a thud and there it lay, twitching and smouldering for several hours. The next day I searched among the black limbs of the tree for the footballer and eventually found him lying face down in the wet grass, his head partially singed but none the worse for wear. As for Nan, that was her last ever Christmas. The following December Dad found her sitting in her front parlour in her favourite armchair, her mouth hanging open, her eyes staring out at the cold new day.