Kneeling on the window seat in the front room of his grandmother’s house Tom pressed his face to the black glass and stared out beyond the orange glow of the street lights. His mother had told him to watch for the first star and he must not move, although he did so want to explore the interesting pile of presents at the foot of the Christmas tree. Behind him a thin spill of light slanted along the carpet connecting him through the half open door to his grandmother Joanna in the kitchen, his grandfather setting out the wine in the dining room and rest of the family getting ready for Christmas dinner in the tall thin house. In the guest bedroom Diana Grey tightened the bow at her waist and shivered as she smoothed down the skirt of her wine dark taffeta. The house was not cold, but Christmas with Peter’s family was a daunting experience. Looking round for her shawl, she caught a glimpse of the single bed and shrugged her shoulders. Peter coming into the room caught her gesture.
“It’s only for a couple of nights,” he said.
“Can’t you creep in after everyone’s asleep?”
“Not in this house. My mother sleeps like a cat and the place is crawling with kids.” He grinned. “You’ll have to manage without me.”
“I’ll never forgive you,” she pulled a face. “I’ll sulk for days.”
He slipped his arms around her waist and rubbed his cheek against hers. He was as tall as she was and standing side by side their faces were reflected in the dressing table mirror. She thin and pale with a curtain of dark hair that swung over her eyes, he golden haired with bright blue eyes and high cheekbones.
“You don’t look English,” she said suddenly.
“Until now I never thought about it. Apart from your name, you seemed just like the rest of us. I suppose it’s all in the blood,” she spoke seriously, aware for the first time of something different about him.
“I don’t feel any different,” he assured her. “Kate’s the one who’s all mixed up about where she belongs. Says she knows she isn’t Polish because she was born and brought up here, but at the same time she doesn’t feel English, because the parents speak Polish at home and we do things in the way they did when they were young. It’s never bothered me. As far as I’m concerned I’m as British as you are. Come on we’d better go downstairs. ”
“What happens tonight?”
“We wait for the first star to appear. That’s what my nephew Tom’s doing. Then we eat our Christmas dinner, twelve courses all fish.” She wrinkled up her face and he grinned again. “That’s how it used to be, but now there’s meat as well. Then we unwrap our presents, have some drinks and go to Midnight Mass at the cathedral.”
“And back to our solitary beds.”
He nodded laughing and this time she laughed with him. Next door in her old room, Kate lay on the bed, her hands smoothing her swelling stomach.
“Kate you’d better get up. If you’re not dressed when Tom calls he’ll burst,” her husband said.
“I could go down like this,” Kate glanced at her slip.
“You could, but you won’t. It’s got to be best clothes for Christmas Eve.” Adam held out his hand and helped her to her feet. “Though you look pretty good in your underwear.” He slid his arms around her. “In spite of being eight months pregnant,” Kate laughed and freed herself from his embrace.
“Mummy is it time?” Elizabeth resplendent in velvet and lace burst into the room. She was followed closely by Lucy, whose blonde curls stood like a halo round her head.
“Nearly,” Kate began, when a triumphant cry peeled through the house.
“Granny I’ve seen it. It’s here. Christmas can begin.” Elizabeth seized her sister’s hand and together they raced down the stairs. Joanna discarding her apron rushed out from the kitchen. “Children , children come downstairs,” she cried; her excitement and joy sounding through the hall.
“Come on,” Peter took Diana’s hand. “Christmas has started.” They crowded into the dining room. Joanna and Boleslaw, Peter and Diana, Kate and Adam and the children, who wriggled their way through the adults towards the table, eager to sit down and begin the meal, which had to be eaten before they could have their presents. First they had to wait while Joanna took the unleavened bread which had been sent from Poland and divided it among them so that each member of the family could share their piece with everyone else and kissing wish them a happy Christmas. Only then could they take their places. Boleslaw at the head of the table Joanna at the foot, the others ranged in between them. Sitting with her husband on one side, her son on the other, Kate was stirred by a deep sense of belonging. In this country in an alien culture surrounded by her family she had finally found her place. She was the bridge between her mother and her children, between the old world and the new. The new baby too had its place in the pattern. She smiled, the child inside her kicked. Peter picked up his camera and the moment was frozen for ever.
Christmas 1980 is based on my own family traditions. In our house we celebrated Christmas Eve Polish style, while for Christmas Day we adopted English traditions; giving us children the best of both worlds.