The Ghosts of Christmases Past…
Strangely, although I have some very vivid and detailed memories from my early childhood in the early nineteen fifties – growing up in a bleak, very cold, Victorian house above a shop in east London – I struggle to recall even the briefest of snapshots of how I spent my Christmases during those early, formative years.
I can recall in great detail my pre-school years including the names of the friends I used to play with; and I still recall with incredible detail all manner of facts and faces from my primary school years, (much of which form the early chapters in my novel, ‘A Lust for Life’), yet specific memories of Christmases during those very years remain frustratingly elusive.
If I was put under hypnosis, the memories would probably come flooding back, and would probably reveal a great deal of childhood unhappiness and misery, which is why my brain seems to have have pretty much blanked out those times. I have no doubt that psychiatrists would have a field day.
My father was a huge bear of a man and a nasty bully. He totally dominated the lives of his family. He had a temper so terrifying that most people would scatter in panic as whenever he exploded, an event which occurred with sickening frequency.
I can certainly recall my later, teenage years, when my father always seemed to single out Christmas Day as an ideal time to wreak his vile temper tantrums and moods upon his ‘subjugated’ family. He always succeeded in destroying any festive spirit we may have been trying to nurture so I can only conclude that it much the same state of affairs during my pre-teen years.
All that I can recall from those very early Christmas days is putting out my stocking, (a grey, school sock), on Christmas Eve, and upon awakening, I would find it stuffed with lumps of coal, (yes – really – coal!), along with a couple of oranges and a few hazel nuts and the odd wallnut, all still in their shells.
That is all that is all that remains of my early Christmas memories. Did I ever receive any Christmas presents? I have no idea, although we were pitifully poor, so I really can’t imagine that if I received anything at all, it certainly couldn’t have amounted to much.
We had no television, so I have no ideas how we spent our Christmas Days. Maybe we listened to the radio, in between my father’s outbursts. We certainly didn’t go to church – my father was an aggressive atheist at a time when the majority people still paid lip service to organised religion and attended at least one church service over the Christmas period.
(It was many years later that I discovered that my father was in fact was a Jew from Ukraine, whose family had fled to the Est End of London during the early 1900’s to escape the anti-Semitic pogroms that were being wreaked by the Russians during that period. But I only knew him as an avowed atheist,)
One silly snippet that I do recall was that every year, right up to Christmas Eve, the family would never know what we would be eating for our dinner on Christmas day, as my father would never buy anything until the butcher shops were about to close. He would trawl through all the shops in the neighbourhood on Christmas Eve, just before closing time, hoping to get a cut price, bargain turkey; but he rarely succeeded.
As likely as not, we would end up with a moth-eaten goose, or duck; or maybe a piece of ham or bully beef that was about to go off as that was all he could manage to procure at the price he was prepared to pay.
We had no fridge, (and no running hot water either come to that), so everything had to be cooked pretty quickly, but my poor mother had no idea what she would be cooking until the last possible moment.
My only other memory of those early Christmas years was one particularly bleak Christmas Day when I was sent out on an errand by foot for my father on an absolutely freezing cold Christmas afternoon. The temperatures were below freezing, and there was a bitterly cold wind that cut right through my threadbare clothes and chilled me to the bone.
This was despite the fact that I was burning up with a very high temperature. I well recall that I all but succumbed to the elements and nearly collapsed on the road near to my home, but somehow I succeeded in making it back.
I was suffering from a very bad dose of flu, but I was terrified to tell my father because I knew he would be angry and shout at me. Both my brother and sister were already in bed with the flu bug and I knew that my father would go berserk if he knew that I too was sick. He would have nobody left to shout at and do his bidding.
They weren’t very happy times, and although my memories of my pre-teen Christmases remains largely a blank, I am sure they must have been pretty, bloody awful.
By the time my teenage years came along, we had moved into a three bedroom council flat, (after having been made homeless, when we were evicted from our previous home), and we had even acquired our very first television.
So I suppose our Christmases were slightly happier, but we were still hapless targets for my father’s terrible temper. He always seemed to choose the festive period to go to war with us.
I remember one year when he refused to speak to anyone for the entire Christmas period. For me, this was a blessed relief and I could spend the whole time glued in front of our tiny, black and white TV, watching movies from the 30’s and American imports such as Wagon Train. But there was always the lingering fear that he might suddenly break his speaking boycott and erupt in anger at any moment.
In my later teenage years, I became close friends with a family of six who I had met through the scouts and they became my only place of sanctuary from the horrors and misery of my own home. I would spend increasing amounts of time in the evenings and weekends at their home, marvelling in the happy family atmosphere.
The family, who had two boys and two girls, were by no means well-off – very few were in those days, but they made the best of things, and nobody ever went without. Crucially, they had that indefinable, magic ingredient which it made a happy family. There was much understated, but obvious love for each other in that family – at least it seemed so to me.
On Christmas Day,whenever I was able to, I would sneak away after a miserable Christmas lunch with my own family, and join my ‘adoptive’ family who lived a few miles away.
There, on a Christmas afternoon, we would play silly board games, eat all kinds of delicious snacks and sweets, and watch variety programmes on their funny looking TV which had a sort of magnifying glass in front of it to make the images bigger.
It was such a contrast to the unhappy times I spent at home. I will always cherish the memories of those days and of that caring family who welcomed me into their home.
In the early nineteen sixties, my school days were over and from the age of 16 I was in full time employment, but still living at home.
By that time, my mother had been working for many years, and this meant that the family’s financial situation had marginally improved.
But Christmases still followed the same familiar pattern, with the inevitable ‘bust-ups’ over Christmas. By the time I was 21, it was such a predictable event that I was pretty much inured to its effects, but it didn’t stop me trying to absent myself from the family Christmas whenever possible.
I particularly recall one year as if it were yesterday. I informed my parents that my new, employer, an American oil exploration company, had requested that I go into work on Christmas Day.
It was a white lie, as there was no compulsion whatsoever for staff to go to work on public holidays, but the office was open seven days a week, and a request had gone out for anyone who may be at a loose end to volunteer for duty. I had willingly put my name down. A day at the office would be infinitely better than enduring yet another miserable Christmas at home.
I remember it so well because I really enjoyed that day. Back then, the tube trains ran a skeleton service on Christmas Day and I relished the novelty of travelling to work in the west end of London, when 99% of the population were stuffing themselves with turkey and booze at home. It felt good to be different. I felt special.
The only other man in the office that Christmas Day was a visiting ‘big cheese’ from America, and he asked for my assisitance in sending a long telex to Head office in California. He drafted it in long hand and I typed it out on the telex machine and printed it out for him to approve, prior to transmission.
He read it through, and then turned to me and spoke in his deep Texan drawl:
‘No, Mobi, I wrote POTABLE water, not portable water.’
I had thought that he had made a mistake when writing out the message and actually meant to write ‘portable’, and told him so. After all, there is no such word as ‘potable’, or so I thought.
He soon put me right. I was in the oil business and crews working in remote desert locations relied on ‘potable’ water – i.e. water fit to drink – not ‘portable water’ – to stay alive. I was suitably embarrassed.
Funny how these silly things stick in one’s memory….
There followed eight years of working overseas in the oil industry at all manner of exotic locations. Most of this time I was employed on a ‘single–status’ contract, which meant that I would always draw the short straw when it came to getting leave home for Christmas – not that I wanted it.
I really didn’t mind at all, and many were the times when I would volunteer to stay on duty while others went home to their wives and families. I even recall one occasion when I was sent on a special assignment to the Trucial Oman, to provide holiday relief for the resident accountant who had begged to go home on leave for the Christmas/New Year period.
I had a whale of a time. Places like the Sultanate of Oman hadn’t changed for hundreds of years; the souks (markets) were positively medieval and ancient customs still existed, such as locking the gates of Muscat City at night to prevent marauding desert Sheiks from sacking the city.
A few years later, when I was working in Ab Dhabi, I recall being invited to expat family homes in Abu Dhabi Township for Christmas lunches and others Christ masses spent with fellow workers at the company’s base camp, miles out in the desert.
It was relative peaceful in the gulf in those days, and I well recall a certain young Arab gentleman with the unlikely name of Yasser Arafat, who worked as a civil servant for the local Abu Dhabi government….
One of my more memorable Christmases during those years in the Middle east was when KLM gave our company a couple free tickets to fly anywhere in the world. The airline was celebrating the inauguration of their new service from Dubai to Europe. and they were handing out free tickets, right, left and centre.
After several years of working through Christmas, it was now my turn to take some time off; so my boss encouraged me and another one of his senior managers to take up KLM’s offer and have a well-earned holiday.
We flew to Amsterdam for a couple of days of debauchery in the windows of Canal Street before jetting off to Bangkok for Christmas.
It wasn’t my first time in Bangkok, but it was my first ever Christmas there and we had the most incredible time. I picked up a girl from a massage parlour who turned out to be one of the most fun-filled girls I ever met – bar none – in Thailand.
She was so bubbly and determined to have a good time and to please me in any way she could. Without relating the sordid details, I will simply state that she was probably the best lay I have ever had, and we spent almost the entire Christmas period satisfying ourselves in ways that hitherto I could have only dreamt about.
My final assignment during my oil industry career was spent in Jakarta, Indonesia. It was the early-seventies and my time in Jakarta turned out to be a mixture of incredible ‘highs’ and indescribable ‘lows’. It was probably about that time that I first started to have an inkling that my drinking was getting out of control – even though I should have recognised this as a reality much earlier on in my adult life.
Christmas in Jakarta coincided with one of my all-time ‘lows’ – a work colleague had sort of ‘stolen’ one of the most desirable ladies I had ever met, and he was rubbing in his ‘victory’ every day in the office, regaling me with accounts of his sexual exploits with a woman who I was still crazy about.
So on Christmas Day I was miserable and alone and I decided to go down to the local pub and get drunk – what else?
I hadn’t been in the pub long when to my total surprise I spotted my big boss in Indonesia – the country manager no less. I had only ever spoken to him on a couple of occasions as he was chiefly concerned with the construction of a massive oil pipe line, and his job mainly required him to mix with the government dignitaries and entertain influential generals. Mixing socially with humble accountants like Mobi was simply not part of his job description
I had been working in Jakarta for almost a year and had never seen him in any bar before. I knew him to be a family man, yet there he was, drinking alone in a down market bar. It wasn’t a sort of place that the likes of him would seek for relaxation. I wondered whether he would recognise me, and if so, would he deign to say ‘hello’.
He did both – in fact he seemed delighted to have found me there.
I have fond memories of that Christmas afternoon, spent with my big boss, who I hardly knew, getting drunk in a Jakarta bar. In spite of all his ‘airs and graces’ and his prestigious position, it soon became apparent that he was far from a happy man. He spent the afternoon pouring his heart out to me. And I did likewise.
We were both suffering from depression, on a day when everyone was supposed to be full of the spirit of joy and well-being.
After that strange and memorable Christmas afternoon, we never met again in a social environment. Neither of us ever spoke again of what had passed between us that day. They were special, personal secrets between ‘kindred spirits’ who happened to meet by chance, one Christmas day in Jakarta.
By the mid -seventies, I was trying to eke out a living in Bangkok, and the Christmas Days I celebrated during those years still stand out as something rather special.
Patpong was still the pre-eminent red light district for expats in Bangkok, and on Christmas Eve, the bars stayed open all night. We all really did have a ball – and a half… The bar girls were not allowed to be ‘bar-fined’ so every bar had its full complement of lovelies to help us celebrate the Christmas of our dreams.
Everywhere we went there were drunken parties, loud music, free food and loads and loadsa girls and loadsa fun.
I cannot recall exactly how many years I participated in such revelries and no doubt my recollections have become somewhat rose-tinted after the passage of time. But I am quite sure that back then, Bangkok was a more of an ‘innocent’ place and the girls were not quite so money-grabbing and altogether much kinder and more fun to be with.
They were not so hard-nosed in their pursuit of riches as they are today. They didn’t demand ridiculous wedding dowries or expect farang boyfriends to build houses for their families up-country as a condition of marriage. There weren’t that many genuine tourists around as back then, most of the westerners in Bangkok lived and worked there. The big tourist boom was yet to come.
It was a magical time – particularly during those very long, very drunken Christmas Eves and Christmas Days.
In 1983 I returned to the UK with my then Thai wife and started a family. After the disastrous Christmases of my childhood, I was determined to make sure my own family had much better and happier Christmases than I had endured as a child and young man.
To a large extent I believe I succeeded in this endeavour.
I was earning plenty of money and like millions of my fellow Brits, no expense was spared in making sure we had typical, no-expense spared, merry Christmases in our home.
We did all the usual stuff, bought countless presents, and for a number of years I would dress up as Father Christmas to hand out presents to my kids until they started to wonder why it was that whenever Santa appeared, their dear old Daddy seemed to disappear. Once they had put 2 and 2 together, it was time to retire the white fluffy beard the silly red cap and mouldy red coat that had been stuffed in a cardboard box in the loft for the past 11 and a half months.
The only ‘fly in the ointment’ during all those merry Christmas times we spent at home were my wife’s bad moods which, strange to say, always seemed to be at their worst during the Christmas period.
Now when had I experienced that before?
In many ways her behaviour was not that far removed from that of my long deceased father. Like him, she always wanted to be in total control and also like him, she had terrible moods. Anyone who dared to cross her – including me – were treated to withering put-downs, criticisms, and subjected to horrible rows and emotional blackmail.
I sometimes feel that I continually marry my own father…over and over again…
Not long before I finally bit the bullet and walked out on wifey number 4 for good, I recall one terrible Christmas at our new home in Northamptonshire. My eldest daughter had long since left home and my youngest was fast approaching the same juncture. But it was Christmas and my family had all come altogether to spend Christmas together in our lovely new home.
Here is an excerpt from ‘Mobi’s Story’ which in itself was taken from an extract from an ‘occasional diary’ that I kept during those increasingly unhappy times:
“26 December, 2001
“It’s nearly midnight on Boxing Day. Hasn’t been a great Christmas – but there again I didn’t expect it to be. Usual moody behaviour – no one able to let their hair down for long – for fear she will get mad at something. Had one minor spat when I mumbled something under my breath and she heard me – so I told her what I had been mumbling. I know I shouldn’t ‘mumble under my breath’ and what I said was petty, even though I was probably right. But as I told her – at least when I am wrong I admit it and apologise – which I have done on countless occasions – but I have yet to hear an apology cross her lips. Apart from that she has had long moody spells which have kept everyone on edge. The usual crap about having to do all the cooking – I offered to cook breakfast for us – but predictably, she refused saying I would make too much mess, which is the same line she was using 20 years ago! She just enjoys bitching and spreading this bloody moral blackmail around. If she doesn’t want to cook then don’t! Nobody would give a toss – we’d make out – we always do when she goes away.
“The ‘biggy’ came this morning – Boxing Day. In order to keep the peace over Xmas I have been doing my best to help out with the cooking and trying to be as helpful generally with all the housework etc. Every day I have made early morning tea etc and fed the cat. Today, when she finally got up, she went to the sink and shrieked that I was so disgusting! What on earth had I done? She was looking at the sink which contained one used tea bag and a few tiny bits of cat meat which I had washed off the cat spoon I had used for the early feed. I had intended cleaning it up but she beat me to it. It was all perfectly normal. She is always leaving slops of all kinds in the sink – including tea bags and cat food from dishes – but I guess she had to have a go at me for some reason. Well I wasn’t having it and told her she was crazy and she was making a fuss over nothing and that my ‘crime’ was no more than she did all the time. I was pretty angry but I didn’t go over the top. She argued a bit but then shut up. Probably because my eldest daughter and her boyfriend were staying with us and she didn’t want a big scene in front of them. Anyway it all more or less settled down, but I think we’re both on edge and not very happy.
Such a pity, because I was in really good mood first thing today and I hoped we could all be so happy together for a few hours at Xmas. But she had to ruin it all – as usual.”
Re-reading the above after a long break makes me realise that maybe all those merry Christmases with my own family were not quite as idyllic as I had thought they were.
When I returned to Thailand in 2002 I met up with my old friends again. The guy who I used to work with back in the 70’s, who ran a recording studio, was still there, still surviving – just. He was planning to put on a Christmas Day spread for some of the old timers who were still around.
He complained to me that he didn’t have an oven in which to cook the turkey, so in stepped the gallant Mobi. I volunteered to cook the Turkey and roast potatoes as I had a large oven in my apartment. I was really chancing my arm; I had volunteered to cook a massive turkey in an untried oven, never having cooked one in my entire life.
I looked up some recipes on the internet and dear old Delia Smith came to my rescue. Of course I wouldn’t have been Mobi if I hadn’t spent Christmas Eve getting rip-roaring drunk, so returning home pissed in the small hours of Christmas Day, I looked at Delia’s instructions and realised that the turkey was so big that it would have to be cooked all night if it was to be ready in time for my friend’s Christmas Day party!
I set my alarm and managed to catch a few hours’ sleep, waking up just in time to check on my turkey and then do the roast potatoes, which involved, boiling, quick frying and then roasting.
My maid tuned up at 8 a.m. and she thought the massive creature that was cooking away in my oven was the biggest chicken she had ever seen in her life!
It was the first and only time I have ever cooked a turkey. Incredibly, despite the fact that I was drunk – or maybe because of it – it was a tremendous success. Everyone thought it was the best turkey and the tastiest roast potatoes they had ever had eaten…
I decided to quit while I was ahead.
A few years later, I took up residence in my newly built ‘Mobi-mansion’ near Pattaya and I was married to Dang, my fifth wife. We were getting ready for a special festive period as many of my family were coming to visit me. Most of them were coming from England for the New Year, but my sister and her husband were flying in from South Africa to spend Christmas Day with us.
I didn’t feel confident enough to repeat my ‘turkey cooking trick’ of a few years earlier, so we all went out for a really splendid Christmas lunch at the Bang Sarae club, before driving home in the late afternoon, very full and not a little tipsy.
Dang’s elder sister, who at that time was living in down-town Pattaya, had been invited to spend Christmas day with us, and at about 7 p.m. on the Christmas evening, Dang suddenly announced that her sister had asked to be dropped back home.
‘Oh I thought she would be sending the night here?’ I asked.
‘No, she has changed her mind. She is not feeling well and asked me to take her home. I’ll only be gone about an hour…..’
By 10 p.m. there was no sign of Dang, and I was becoming extremely upset at her prolonged absence. By midnight, I was beside myself with anger, as her phone had been turned off for many hours. At around 1 a.m., I jumped into my car and drove to Pattaya in a hopeless attempt to try and track her down.
Remarkably, when I parked up in the Wat near to ‘Walking Street’, guess what I found? Yes, it was Dang’s car as large as life, so I knew she was in the vicinity. But where?
I found myself a seat in a bar opposite to the club where I thought she was probably drinking and dancing the night away and waited for her to appear.
3 a.m. came and went, the club closed, but no sign of Dang.
I went back to the car park and found that her car was still there but had no idea where she was. I feared the worst. She was almost certainly in some man’s bed. By then, I was drunk out of my mind, but I decided to carry on drinking so I walked along Beach Road to find an open bar to continue my binge.
At around 4 am, my brother-in-law called me. He said that my sister was very concerned about my whereabouts, but I told him I was fine, and not to worry.
At around 7 a.m. my wife called. I knew she had arrived home and was shocked to find me absent. I let the phone ring and I carried on drinking. She called and called and called, but I wasn’t about to answer.
It wasn’t one of my happiest Christmases, but it is certainly one that sticks in my mind.
I finally left Dang in 2009 and spent a year alone before I met Noo. That year was probably the darkest year I have ever had. I was fighting my alcohol addiction and was totally spaced-out on powerful anti-depressants. Amazingly, I spent Christmas, 2009, completely sober, and have little memory of what I actually got up to – if anything.
I fell off the wagon early in the New Year of 2010, after about 3 months of sobriety. When I started drinking again, it wasn’t long before I became very suicidal. Thinking back, I honestly think I am quite lucky to still be here as it could have quite easily gone the other way. It was the first time in my life that I felt utterly despondent and could not see any way out of my terrible depression and misery. I spent many hours trying to decide ‘when’ and ‘how’.
The ‘how’ would be easy – a massive overdose of insulin would do the trick very well; I would go into hypoglycaemic shock and death would soon follow. Only the ‘when’ needed to be resolved, but before I finally put the proverbial gun to my head I decided to have a few more enjoyable highs with a few more bottles of whisky. For some unexplainable reason, the ‘when’ never happened.
But that Christmas 2009 was notable, as it was the first Christmas, since my early teens that had passed without me a having a single drop of booze.
The last Christmas I want to write about is the Christmas of 2010.
Lek moved in with me in October 2010. We had first met a few months earlier and although I was still drinking, now that I had Lek, I made a big effort to keep it under some semblance of control. As is the way of alcoholics, I was able to do this pretty well during the period leading up to Christmas, but the imminent arrival of the special day was just the excuse I needed to go out on the lam.
I promised Noo that I was just going out for a couple of Christmas Eve drinks with some friends would only be out an hour or so. I staggered home in the small hours, drunk out of my mind. Noo had been waiting patiently all evening for me to appear and was very distraught.
She told me later that she had sat there half the night thinking that she would have a very serious talk with me. She had already gone through one bad marriage with a man who was frequently drunk and beat her and she wasn’t about to have another drunken, possibly abusive relationship.
In the event, she decided to give me one last chance, but stupid Mobi, being blissfully unaware of Noo’s state of mind, repeated his drunken act on New Year’s Eve.
It was even worse this time. I arrived home even later and even drunker – if that were possible. It was around 4 a.m. and I took one drunken look at Noo and dogs, who were still up waiting up for me, and promptly collapsed on the sofa in a drunken stupor.
Noo decided that enough was enough and she waited for me to sober up before informing that she was moving out.
If there really is any God out there, then for the first time in my life, he must have intervened on my behalf.
When I awoke, I was immediately full of remorse and regret for what I had done. I took one look at Noo and knew that this time I had gone too far. I somehow sensed it wouldn’t be enough for me to promise that from now on I would try even harder to control my drinking.
I had to make a far greater gesture – or commitment – if I wasn’t to lose her. So I told her that if she would find it in her heart to forgive me, then I would swear on whatever is holy, that I would never -ever – take another alcoholic drink.
She looked down on my pained and booze ravaged face, and being the generous, goodhearted person that she is, she decided to give me yet another final chance.
The rest is history. Since that fateful New Year’s Eve, not a single drop of alcohol has passed my lips and I am quite sure that it will remain that way for the remainder of my life.
Within seven days of Christmas 2010, the curtain finally came down on Mobi’s long, highly eventful and very destructive 50 odd year drinking career.
These are just a few of the Christmases that spring to mind. Naturally, there are countless others – some good and some bad, that remain in my alcohol ravaged memory.
There were the riotous, drunken Christmases in Nigeria, and much later, in the 80’s and 90’s, the happy years I spent with my family at my brother’s house in Kent, and even one year when we flew out from snow-bound London on Christmas Day to Johannesburg and spent Boxing Day with my sister’s family and friends at a summer barbecue by a swimming pool.
The only shadow that hung over many of those Christmases was my moody, selfish and ever-complaining fourth wife, Noi.
But life is never perfect, and I would guess that many of you who are reading my Christmas Day reminiscences have experienced a similar mixed-bag during your own lives.
Happy Christmas, everyone.