The Way We Were...

My daughters, brows puckered in concentration, lean heavily over me as I pen the invitations. Little Nan breathes wetly in my left ear, Hilary and Anne spell out the letters as I write them: “C-h-r-i-s-t-e-n-i-n-g – what’s a Christening, Mummy?”


“I know!” Anne thumps with her first on the table and my startled pen shakes a large ink blot onto the clean white card. “I remember when Little Nan was christeninged!”


“Christened!” – my correction is lost amid the clamour.


“I remember her being christeninged too,” Hilary claims stoutly.


“I ‘member, I ‘member!” shouts Little Nan. Her sisters turn on her with scorn: “You can’t, you fibber. You were only a baby. I bet you can’t remember a single thing about it. I bet....”


“Does it really matter?” I sigh, scrabbling about in my writing case for the scrap of blotting paper I keep for this sort of inky emergency.


“What’s going to happen to Steven at the Christening?” Hilary sounds worried. I abandon the hopeless task of mopping up the ink-spattered card and embark on the almost as difficult one of explaining infant baptism to my daughters, without using any of the convenient but – to them – incomprehensible terms which spring most readily to mind.


I am concerned that they should be made aware of the meaning behind what they might otherwise think of as a simply social occasions. Of course at first sight, it may well appear to be just another family party. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in plenty are due to descend upon us in Steven’s honour; our preparations are lengthy and chaotic and not helped at all by the fact that the fates are consorting against us at every turn.


It starts on Saturday afternoon when we call to collect the crockery we have arranged to hire, only to discover that the shop closed at 1 p.m. for the day. Somewhere, tantalisingly behind that locked door, is a crate containing two dozen cups, saucers and plates “elegantly decorated in blue and gold.”


The baker’s, at least, is open and we thankfully take possession of the christening cake; it is not until we get home that we lift the lid to examine the contents. The cake looks appetising. Steven’s name has been spelt correctly. But there on top is a hideous sleeping cherub, two plastic, golden wings sprouting coyly from his back.


“Isn’t it horrible!” I shudder.


“Isn’t it beautiful!” the girls chorus in delight. They have absolutely no taste. It is too late to do anything  about either minor calamity; I set out our motley assortment of crockery, the sorry relics of tea sets I have demolished over the years, and place the cake, with cherub, in its position of honour.


“It’ll be alright tomorrow,” the girls reassure me.


“I hope so...” I am doubtful; my sleep is plagued by a vision of my Steven, turning into a blue-garbed cherub and growing plastic wings.


There is still plenty to do the next day; the girls wrap up the cutlery in paper napkins, while their father lends a hand to more important business.


“You’ve added more sherry to this trifle,” I accuse him, tasting a sly spoonful. “Well, it’s supposed to be a sherry trifle, isn’t it?” – defensively. It is now, I inform him, positively lethal; he, weeping copiously over the spring onions, is unrepentant. “If the spring onions don’t get ‘em, then the sherry trifle will,” he pronounces, smugly.


“Can we have a taste? Can we lick the spoon?” The lethal trifle is hastily removed out of reach.


Adults only,” I warn them. “You children are having a picnic tea in the garden, remember?” As if at a signal, there is a crack of thunder and the heavens, mocking, open. There will be no picnic tea in the garden today for the dozen or so children we are expecting.


The christening gown, carefully unfolded from its tissue wrappings, comes in for some criticism from my daughters. “Steven can’t wear a dress. Steven’s  a boy!” Young Steven appears to share their views; he chews at the lace trimming on the hem of the gown and dribbles happily down the smocked yoke. “He’s drooling again!” announces my small niece, who has more dealings with dogs than with babies.


The rain pours steadily down. As we scamper from the cars to the church. Picture hats droop drearily from the wet; cameras are hastily packed away in waterproof cases – there will be no record of this family event, alas.


The service is simple, but beautiful. Steven behaves impeccably. Afterwards Hilary collects the prayer books at the door, while the Vicar rescues the collection plate from Little Nan.


Anne inspects her brother’s face intently. “I’m looking,” she whispers in mingled reverence and disappointment, “for the sign of the Cross.” I have more explaining to do.


My youngest daughter takes her role as hostess very seriously. After helping her young friend James and herself to a serving of Lethal Trifle while my back is turned, she then leads him on a tour of the room, draining all the dregs in the sherry glasses.


The gentleman, I understand from his mother, suffered no ill effects from his alcoholic excesses – apparently he can hold his liquor. The lady, I am ashamed to say, had a terrible hangover the next morning.


It was, in more ways than one, quite a christening!


Slough Evening Mail - Summer 1973

"I've made all the beds," announces Anne, "Hilary's was extremely difficult because she'd got her sheet all tangled up with the blankets again. I've even," she adds, pointedly, "made yours."


"And I've washed all he dishes and Little Nan has dried them all and put them all away - except for the saucepans, because neither of us could reach the cupboards. Even Steven cleared the table," says Hilary.


"What would you like us to do for you now?" they chorus in unison.


If, at this point, anyone is feeling shocked and horrified to hear of such heartless exploitation of small children's willingness to help and desire to please; if anyone is imagining me, lolling in an armchair, polishing my nails while issuing long lists of instructions to my own slave labour force - I feel I should explain that the only person being exploited around here is me. What is more, as it is all for a good cause, I cannot think of anything I can do about it.


It started when they brought home their Lent boxes from Sunday School. "We're collecting for the children of Bangladesh this year," said Anne, "but this year we've had a really good idea. We've been talking about it on the way home. We're not going to ask you to give us any money to put in our boxes..."


"You're not?" - cautiously.


"No - we're going to work for it. Every time we do a job for you, you pay us a certain amount for it. We're going to give up our spare time for Lent," she pronounced, piously.


"Not ALL of our spare time," amended Hilary, the realist.


"But most of it," corrected Anne, the determined.


As one who has always maintained that I would rather my children possessed caring natures than brains or beauty, I could only give my support to this highly laudable project.


But, oh, what problems it has raised in our household. What delicate pay negotiations are now transacted each and every morning at the breakfast table (laid with all the knives, forks and spoons pointing in the wrong direction by Steven, who is determined to do his bit for the children of "Bungled Dish.")


The wrangles which I have to resolve each day would take a Trade Union Congress all of a week to settle in an uneasy and short-lived compromise. For instance, do the difficulties involved in making bunk beds warrant additional payment on that for making up an ordinary divan? And is a double bed counted as one bed, for the purposes of payment, or two? Or should they, perhaps, charge per blanket?


Is it fair to ask the same price for washing up after dinner for six, as after tea and toast for four? If drying the dishes, should this include putting everything away in the cupboards or can this be charged separately? If cleaning shoes is worth 10p, how much more for cleaning knee-high boots? And if those same knee-high boots have become mud encrusted through taking the short cut home from school across the playing field, does this merit extra payment for the work involved or does it serve you right for trying to save five minutes, when you have been told to come the long way round during the winter?


When undertaking the shopping, should they charge per trip, or per shop, or per bag to be carried home? Or a percentage of the money spent? Does Saturday shopping - coping with queues at the check-out stretching halfway round the shop - deserve a higher rate of pay? Any moment now and they will institute a bonus system and then I will be lost.


We have had a week of this so far and I have absolutely no change left in my purse - though the Bungled Dish boxes are chinking nicely. It might be cheaper, in the long run, to engage an au pair.


There are advantages: the beds are made earlier than ever before, the draining board has never been clearer of crockery; their shoes have never been cleaner, nor their bedrooms tidier.


But whatever happened to labours of love? "Run and fetch my slippers, love," said their weary, homecoming father. The response was automatic and unthinking: "What's it worth?" asked Anne.


Slough Evening Mail: March 11 1976


I sometimes think that if it were not for Open Day I would have very little idea what goes on in my daughters' lives between 9 a.m. and 3.30 p.m. every weekday.


It's not for want of asking either; but the answers I receive to my diligent "What did you do at school today?" depend entirely on their mood of the moment. Often I have to be content with an airy "Oh - things!" as they race off with Jane or Julia or the latest bosom buddy.


Even if I catch them in a more talkative mood there's no guarantee that I will understand what they are talking about: For instance:


"We had operations today" - from Hilary, importantly.


"Operations?" Accustomed as I am to Hilary's particular brand of malapropisms, I cannot figure that one out.


"She means apparatus," Anne explains in her best elder-sisterly manner, "Her class had PE in the hall." Thank heavens for an efficient interpreter.


There are still plenty of questions I would like answered. What does Hilary mean by "jumble work", why does Anne have an obsession with Australia these days and who is this mysterious "Sam" they keep talking about, who was taken off to prison one day last term?


For all I know my daughters have befriended an old lag, Hilary is running a rummage sale and Anne is planning to emigrate! I am seeking solutions this Wednesday - Open Day at the Infants School.


It almost seems like prying to wander round their classrooms without them. It's the small revelations which fascinate me - where they sit, what books they have in their class library, the way they have decorated the windows with gaudy painted butterflies and monster flower blooms.


I cannot see much point in investigating their progress too critically at this early stage - I haven't much patience with the father next to me, worrying over the fact that his five year old can't tell the time properly: "I've promised him a watch when he can, but anything more difficult than half past or quarter to and he's completely stumped..."


Nor do I feel inclined to follow the example of the mother who plans to give her son 10p for every star she finds in his work books. To me the star should be reward in itself  - but perhaps I am just mean.


I learn a lot about my daughters from their school work. Hilary has a colourful drawing of a long, thin, pig-tailed nurse pinned up on the classroom wall. "I want to be a nurse and make sick people well," is scrawled hopefully across the top of the paper. I wince at the thought of my Hilary, who only has to look at a breakable object for it to crash, obligingly, to the ground, among the thermometers and bedpans. I fear she would break more bones than she mended. I take comfort from the fact that, to judge by the rest of the drawings on the wall, all the girls want to be nurses and all the boys policemen.


Those puzzling questions are answered too. "Jumble work" is, in fact, a set of jumbled words to be put in order. Anne's class is in the middle of a full-scale project about Australia; "Sam the convict" is a character from a schools television programme entitled "Sam of Both Island" which frankly sounds decidedly like a re-run of Gulliver's adventures in Lilliput to me.


I open Anne's News Book with well-justified trepidation. Every detail of our family life is recorded faithfully, with many cunning elaborations.


"This morning as Mummy was putting on her coat she saw the awful mess in our hall, even worse than normal, and she said in a cross voice "Who made this mess?" I said no and Hilary said no and Little Nan said no. But Mummy said it couldn't be Steven because he is too young. And we all knew it was Little Nan."


For this piece of fearless reporting, Anne earned a silver star which spurred her onto further, mostly misleading, descriptions. Later entries place her unsuspecting father among the ranks of the unemployed - "When my daddy finds a new job we will all move to a new house" - and the whole family in dire financial straits - "Mummy still can't afford to buy us any shoes."


Whatever views Anne's teacher may have formed with regard to her pupil's family, she has plenty of praise for my daughter. "Anne is very good at managing the other children," she tells me.


"She can be a bit bossy," I agree. Miss McNeill is horrified: "Not BOSSY, Mrs Ball," she exclaims, "Anne is a born leader!" I must remind myself of that the next time she starts ordering me around.


I can forgive her everything for the last entry in her book - even though it was obviously written for my eyes to see.


"My Mum is middle-sized and very beautiful."


Well, what better time than Open Day for a bit of shameless flattery!


Slough Evening Mail - 1973

"Some people at school," says Anne, eyeing me slyly over the box of Christmas decorations, "say that it's your mother and father who do it."


"Do what?" I ask, innocently - as if I didn't know.


"They say, persists my eldest daughter, "that there isn't really a Father Christmas at all, that parents just pretend there is."


She regards me expectantly; any minute now she will ask me outright and I shall have to tell her the truth. Last year she hovered just the other side of disbelief; this year sees the end of the legend for Anne.


"Well, IS there?" she demands, her teasing smile indicating that she already has more than an inkling what my answer will be. After all it is a bit much for an enquiring eight year old to swallow; that one, rather stout, obviously ageing genetleman with a flamboyant feel for fashion and a clever, if not particularly practical, answer to rising petrol prices, manages to deliver in a single night all manner of parcels to every child in the country.


 And if all the presents which bulge out of their father's football socks on a Christmas morning really do come from Santa's sack of plenty, then why is it that they are all wrapped up in the paper we bought from the local newsagent's because it seemed a bargain at the price? It is high time, Anne thinks, that I came clean about Christmas.


She is right, of course - but I am still reluctant to confess. Anne is growing up, I have to admit; even her attitude to Christmas presents is changng. It is one thing to try to impress on a child that it is better to give than receive - but with so much going on for the young ones in the festive season, it is quite another to make the argument sound convincing. Anne appears to have got the message at last and has spent the past month making knitted coat-hangers. Everyone we know is getting a padded hanger from Anne.


I happend to read the accompanying letter she wrote to her grandmother. It breezed the utmost confidence in the suitability of her gift. "Here is the present I have made for you. It is a lovely present and I am sure you will like it."


"Don't you think you ought to explain to her that people don't generally say that sort of thing?" her father asked me but I was adamant. It made such a refreshing change, I felt, from the normal diffidence with which we offer our presents - "just a little something", "nothing very grand, I'm afraid," or, worst of all, "you can always change it if you don't like it" - all sentiments of whch I have been as guilty as anyone at times.


But Anne is awaiting my answer. I think I make quite a good job of it, explaining why parents like to surround Christmas with a certain mystery in the comfortably well-padded shape of Santa Claus - and asking her at the same time if she will share the secret with us and not spoil it for the little ones.


I hardly have time to finish before Anne breaks in: "Oh, Mummy, I am so GLAD!"


It isn't at all the reaction I expected. Can it be - awful thought - that she has been frightened all these years at the thought of our strange nocturnal visitor?


"What do you mean?" I ask.


"I'm so glad, she breathes ecstatically, "That I know the secret too..."


It occurs to me that perhaps that is why the legend survives in these matter of fact times - because those in the secret gain even more pleasure from it than the children for whom they spin the yarn.


Now every time one of the younger children brings up the subject of Christmas Eve, I know I will see Anne grinning hugely at me across the room, a delightfully conspiratorial gleam in her eyes.


"There's one thing I'm wondering about," she tells me, "If you and Daddy pretend about Christmas Eve, then how does the stardust get left on the plate we put out for Father Christmas's supper?"


I coudl have produced, as damning evidence of my deception, the tube of silver glitter - 7p from the local stationer's and now carefully hidden in a kitchen cupboard.


"Aha!" I say, mysteriously.


Well, why should I give away ALL my secrets?


Slough Evening Mail: December 1974

"Those who have tears," said my friend and neigbour, handing me a large white handkerchief with the letter B embroidered in one corner, "prepare to shed them now."


There we were, all in our best as befitted the occasion, awaiting the start of the nursery school's Christmas concert. No critical first night this - there was an expectant buzz of conversation from the hall while proud papas fiddled with the flash attachments to their 35 millimetre cameras. A small, belated angel crept in at the front door, adjusted bedraggled wings and trotted self-consciously through to the back room.


As one of the few members of the audience who could watch without bias, I decided it would be an interesting exercise to review the prodcution with a critic's eye...


It began a trifle slowly, perhaps because the ten three year olds who featured in the first scene took a fair amount of shepherding onto the stage. The five girls lisped their verse of "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" beautifully but the boys' rendition of  "Rats and Snails and Puppy Dogs' Tails" lacked conviction, I felt.


The pace improved with the second item on the programme - Little Miss Muffet Sat On Her Tuffet and was frightened off by an extremely realistic spider. The latter did rather spoil the effect by removing his fearsome black head to inform the audience that it was "hot in there."


A four year old understudy called Emily got her chance of stardom when she stepped in at the last moment to take the place of a soloist who was unfortunately indisposed with an attack of chicken pox. Emily displayed considerable stage presence in covering up the fact that she completely forgot the words of "Polly Put The Kettle On" and adlibbed cleverly by substituting the words of "Jack and Jill". Her assurance was such that it is possible this slip might have passed unnoticed by anyone who had not studied Mother Goose's Book of Nursery Rhymes.


As Emily left the stage to tumultuous applause it was a signal for the nativity play to commence.Three wise men, solemn-faced, surveyed the ceiling. "I see a star," said one, unconvincingly. His companions nudged him hastily - he was looking in completely the wrong direction. A voice off-stage drew his attention to the glittering star strung from the ceiling behind him. "Oh, I see a STAR!" he repeated, in his voice the wonder of discovery.


All three enjoyed themselves so much cavorting about on imaginary camels that the narrator had to repeat "and off they went to Jerusalem" thee times in a voice growing in treacly determination with each attempt to persuade the wise men to leave the stage.


Herod had the face of a cherub and a charming habit of scratching his head when he couldn't remember what he was supposed to do next. Perhaps he could have addressed more of his remarks to the wise men kneeling uncomfortably before him and fewer to his mother in the second row back.


The angels appearing on the hillside to a quartet of shepherds with cardboard sheep tucked under their arms seemed a little vague about their part in the plot. Joseph was quite unable to overcome his embarrassment at having to put an arm round Mary and glowered ferociously at the audience all through a particularly tender scene. Mary, demure in blue, quite stole the show by dropping her infant, swaddled in a Mothercare blanket, on the floor as she made to lay him in the manger.


"What did you think of it then?" whispered my friend, dewy-eyed. Now, if ever, was the moment to provide a fearless critical assessment....


"Could I give you back your handkerchief later? " I aked, "It's got a bit damp."


Slough Evening Mail: Christmas 1979

Latest comments

23.04 | 20:15

lovely and heartwarming - an inspiration to us all x

09.03 | 12:07

Love this story told as ever beautifully.x

10.11 | 21:31

What a super account of a special event. I loved meeting you last night and seeing your creation come together. I’m so pleased you got so much from the activity

07.09 | 13:17

I have broad shoulders x

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