When I was a loveable blonde-haired five year old and living at my grandparent’s house with my mother after she had left my biological father three years earlier, Father Christmas was still real and the thought of him visiting me was almost more excitement than I could bear. My presents – that had been kept hidden about the house – were stuffed into an old bolster cover and propped up in a corner of my grandparent’s bedroom. There it would stay until the following morning when, dancing with excitement, I would burst into their bedroom at some unearthly hour on Christmas morning. Mum would already be there and the three of them would lie on the bed and watch with adoration as I opened each of my presents with unadulterated glee, exclaiming to everything I opened: “A (insert present of your choice)! Just what I always wanted!”
They enjoyed every second of my moon-faced wonderment and they gave thanks that they had been blessed with such a beautiful and appreciative child.
But nine years later things were very different.
When I turned fourteen and became the archetypal teenager (argumentative and thoroughly dislikeable) my mother had already been married (to Mr Right) and divorced (he turned out to be Mr Wrong).
She had moved back in with her parents, but my presents were no longer lovingly bundled into a bolster but neatly arranged under the tree in the front room, where they would stay until everyone was up and out of bed, at which point I would be able to open them.
All houses had a font room and a back room. The back room was used as an everyday room whereas the front room was only used for special occasions. Special visitors were shepherded into the front room and, other than the absence of a television and the presence of doilies draped over the backs of chairs, the front room was the same as the back room. The strange thing about our front room was that it was at the back of the house – grandma preferred the view at the back and she also objected to 'the bloody nosy neighbours' peering in when they had guests.
Back in the 1950s this arrangement often bewildered guests who had never been to the house and they would start to walk to where the traditional front room would normally be located only to be directed to the totally alien ‘front room at the back of the house” location. Some guests found the experience so distressing and disorientating they had to excuse themselves and visit the toilet where they would be forced to vomit the incomprehension and perplexity from their bodies before they could continue.
By the end of the 1960s, however, the average person’s perception of what was acceptable in a house had changed and it was no longer considered strange or unconventional to have a front room at the back of the house. In the history of interior design my grandma, although way ahead of her time, went totally unrecognised.
Mum went out drinking on Christmas Eve with Aunty Sylvia and they would stagger home, giggling about the good night they had had and the terrible men they had met. At Christmas my mother tried to forget about my disagreeable behaviour whilst trying desperately to understand why she had been cursed with such a sullen and unappreciative child. A good night out, she soon discovered, that involved alcohol (and plenty of it) was the perfect formula required to induce memory loss and a sense of blissful indifference.
On Christmas morning I raced downstairs to find my presents arranged neatly under the tree and my grandparents and mum eventually emerged, looking tired and bleary-eyed, I dived in amongst them, my fingers probing the brightly coloured paper. Along with a wooden fort and several boxes of plastic soldiers, I found an Eagle annual, a pair of socks and a jumper, two Airfix model kits (a Spitfire and a Hurricane), a Painting-by-Numbers set, some crayons and a Batman colouring book, a pair of boxing gloves and a Chad Valley Bowl-A-Strike.
Also in this confusion of presents was something that I’d always wanted – a red and white Powerball.
A Powerball could bounce over three stories high, higher than any ball had ever bounced in recorded history and with practice an assortment of tricks could be performed as long as you had a handy wall nearby – or so the advert on the telly said. This was fortunate as there was an abundance of walls where I lived – and almost all the houses in our street had at least one.
The Powerball or Bouncy Ball was invented by Norman Stingley, a chemist from California who, in 1965, spent his spare time compressing various scraps of synthetic rubber together.
We can only imagine the sparkling conversations that must have rebounded around the Stingley household each evening. In fact I often imagine it as one of those dire American sitcoms from the 50s and 60s. I’d like to think that it would be called something like My Favorite Polymer.
Mr Stingley arrives home to the thunderous applause, cheers and whistling from a moronic audience who have no idea why they are doing what they are doing.
All the characters have ridiculous American accents.
Mr Stingley: Hi honey, I’m home.
Mrs Stingley: Hello dear. Did you have a good day at the laboratory?
Mr Stingley: Yes dear – I used 6000lbs of pressure to compact some rubber into a ball.
Mrs Stingley: That’s nice dear. Myra next door has got some new curtains.
Mr Stingley: That’s nice.
Mrs Stingley: Yes dear, that is nice. Curtains are so much more useful than balls.
Mr Stingley: That’s a matter of opinion.
Mr Stingley winks at the audience then grabs hold of his wife, bends her over the table and has dry sex with her as the audience whoop, cheer, whistle, cat-call, bark, applaud and then begin shooting each other for no apparent reason other than that they are too stupid to think of anything else to do.
Norman Stingley’s painstaking research did however result in the mass manufacture of polybutadiene rubber balls about the size of ping-pong balls that rebounded proportionally to the amount of force used when they were thrown at a hard surface.
But I didn’t care about any of that and so I ripped off the card and plastic packaging like someone possessed and held the hard, glistening ball in my hand. I was in rapture as I charged outside in my pyjamas, ready to set my Powerball off on its maiden journey.
I drew my hand up and bounced the Powerball with all my strength and it shot up into the air – higher than I’d seen anything go. I watched, squealing with delight, as it started its descent, eager to have another go. But my delight quickly turned to despair as the Powerball hit the roof of the house and bounced off in another direction and I was left gazing helplessly as it disappeared over the neighbour’s house and vanished.
I never saw it again.
I stood in the garden in total and abject misery. I’d had my Powerball for less than a minute and it was gone.
I felt like crying.
When Mum, still in her dressing gown, stepped out of the house and into the garden she saw me standing in my pyjamas looking up into the air like a moron.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked.
“Playing,” I replied.
“My Powerball,” I said, after a moment’s hesitation.
“Give us a go of it, then,” she said.
I looked at my mother in disbelief. “I can’t – I’ve lost it.”
“I just bounced it and it went over the roof.”
My mother smiled in sweet triumph. “I knew that would happen,” she said. “I don’t know why you wanted the bloody stupid thing in the first place. Waste of money if you ask me.”
As she walked back to the house I stuck my tongue out at her. It didn’t get my Powerball back but it did at least give me some degree of satisfaction.
Unfortunately Mum saw me reflected in the kitchen window and she came back and gave me a clip round the ear.
“Parents aren’t allowed to hit children at Christmas,” I said.
She hit me again for good measure.
And then it started to rain. It wasn’t real rain – it was just drizzle – but it was the kind of drizzle that just made you feel unrelentingly depressed.
It was supposed to snow at Christmas.
I watched my mother as she turned to go back into the house and thought to myself: this is the worst bloody Christmas I’ve ever had.
I must have stood there for a good five minutes before the door opened again and Granddad stepped out wearing his overcoat over his pyjamas.
“You alright then?” he asked.
“What's up with you?”
“Christmas,” I said, “is bloody rubbish.”
“I’ll let you into a little secret,” said Granddad, “it doesn’t get any better. The older you get the more rubbish it becomes. The way to make the most of it is to prepare to be disappointed. Only if you’re prepared for the disappointment of Christmas can you truly enjoy the warmth and good cheer of it.”
I stood there with Granddad, looking at the kitchen door wondering what he had meant when the door opened and Grandma popped her head out. “What are you two daft buggers up to? Get inside or you’ll catch your bloody deaths.”
She closed the door and Granddad and I looked at each other and started to laugh.
“You don't have a dirty old sweet in your pocket, do you Granddad?” I asked.
“I’m afraid not, lad,” he said. He fished around in his pocket and said, “But I have got one of these.”
I couldn’t believe it. In his hand was a Powerball. “I bought another one just in case and you can have it if you let me go first.”
“Go on! Go on!”
Granddad pulled his arm back and bounced it with all his strength on the pavement of the path.
We watched it shoot up into the air.
We watched it go higher than anything we’d ever seen.
We watched it hit the roof of the house and bounce out of our sight and out of lives.
"Bugger," said Granddad, placing a sympathetic arm around my shoulder, "I knew it would do that."
This is the first of two Christmas stories. The second "Christmas with the F*ckw*ts" will be posted on Christmas Eve.