I’ve had this bizarre song stuck in my head for the last two days that goes something like, “The animals came in two-by-two hurrah, hurrah, the animals came in two-by-two hurrah hurrah, the animals came in two-by-two the elephant and the kangaroo” blah-dee-dah-dee-blah. It got me thinking about a whole bunch of stuff including the Christmas when we found out the truth about Santa, or as we called him, Father Christmas.
It started simply with a kitten 'Kola' who came down from friends of ours on the train with my mum. She growled and hissed all the way, and we should have sent her straight back because it was definitely a sign. She wasn't an awful cat, but she knew what she wanted, she knew what she didn't and the years of child-inflicted-abuse at the hands of my brother and I pushed her towards her ratty latter years when we all had to refer to her as 'The Duchess' and she'd only eat warmed chicken breast. But I mean, what cat wants to be stuffed into baby clothes- which is what I did to her and seeing as my brother was into chemistry, God only knows what she suffered at his hands.
Next came the chickens. The people who'd lived in our house before us had kept chickens and there was this empty coup at the back of our long garden, just begging to be filled. So soon, Slow-Coach, Quick Quick, Tabitha, Oscar, Olivia and Cecelia joined us. My brother and I would rush outside every morning to check for fresh eggs though this novelty wore off, of course, when it came to mucking out the stinking coup or rubbing ointment onto the rear of the poor lassie at the bottom of the pecking order. But we loved them nonetheless, which should be taken into account when it comes to their rather sinister ending.
I think the next to arrive was the gerbils, Hustle, Bustle and Nustle, though it could have been the rats Fudge and Toffee. These two crews didn't mix as I found out once, when I foolishly thought that they might all be friends. Nustle was never the same and although no one else who was present agrees, that day convinced me that rats could smile. Finally came my brothers snake, Natty. It wasn't very big, not much more then a fancy shoelace but it was a snake- which was pretty exotic for grey-old-eighties-Birmingham and it had a special tank with a warming light and a water bowl and some rocks to sunbathe on.
It's only now, that I am a mum and have bills to pay that I fully appreciate the potentially astronomical cost of Christmas. We grew up on a tight budget and my brother and I were used to getting just one gift each from our parents plus stockings from Father Christmas but as we all know, it's the stockings that get you, and I can picture my poor mum shifting pennies around to try to make sure we had all those little stockinged treats, a book, a chocolate bar, some stripey socks.....And now that I am a mum, now that I know that Father Christmas isn't real and that it's the stockings that get you, I have some sympathy thinking back to the pained look on my mum's face a week before Christmas when I came home from sewing class with stockings for Kola, Hustle, Bustle, Nustle, Fudge, Toffee and Natty the snake. I'd stitched them all with love- to the great amusement of our Home Economics teacher who probably had an idea what my poor mum was in for.
Let's just pause a minute here and consider what the UK was like in the eighties. Shops closed at 5pm, nothing was open on a Sunday and you ate what was in season only. Supermarket vegetable aisles were much more like a greengrocers selling what was delivered day to day without guaranteeing anything more than the absolute staples. So on Christmas Eve what a treat it was when mum came home with a Webb lettuce that we'd not seen before- a Webb lettuce so delicious that we spent the whole mealtime discussing the wonderful-deliciousness of it. I'm avoiding the obvious here- how, with such stimulating dinner-time conversation could my parents possibly have thrown in the towel on their marriage just a few short years later- but that might get me too far off topic and I'm sure you want me to get the the damn point. So after dinner I proudly pulled out the secret project that I'd been working on quietly all day while mum was out slogging her way around the pet shops: a stocking for the chickens. After all, it wasn't fair to leave them out and Father Christmas would be bringing something for them. Of course.
After all these years I can still picture the look on mum's face- the look of a struggle. She was perfectly hogtied. She probably wanted to belt me around the head and shout that Father Christmas wasn't bringing the chickens anything because he wasn't real, and even if he was, he wasn't going to bring presents for the chickens because they were farmyard food not bloody children. But she didn't, she kept her quiet panic to herself and after our ritual stocking hanging we went off quietly to bed.
Christmas morning dawned and bright and early my brother and I leaped from our beds, raced down the stairs ripping open our stocking gifts. Twenty minutes later, when the mess of paper was settling down and my sleepy parents has surfaced we inspected the pet's stockings. We found fish flakes for Natty, cat treats for Kola, millet for the gerbils, a chew toy for the rats and Webb lettuce for the chickens. Hang on...webb lettuce? My brother spearheaded the hunt and we searched through the fridge for the remains of the salad from the night before. There was none. And it was as simple as that- we'd found out the truth about Father Christmas. He was a dirty thief.
It could have been worse, as the chickens found out that summer when we ate them.