Until 2007, I had spent every Christmas Day of my life at the same house in London: 58 Christmases in all. It was lovely, if predictable. Since then, since the death of my parents, I have gone mad and sampled the day at three different locations. This year marks the fourth, and the first I have spent abroad. This year we are in France.
Linguistically, this is my first Noël.
(We have been here for a week now, and I regret to inform regular readers of this blog that there has been no sign of Phil the Pheasant. We hope he isn’t appearing on someone’s plate at this very moment.)
Our Noël celebrations promise to be chaotic. My eldest step-daughter and her husband are with us, together with their two rather adorable daughters, aged four. I could identify them as Poopoo and Weewee, and they would be happy with that, but for the sake of decorum I will call them what we usually call them, collectively: ‘the girls’.
The girls were born on 10 February 2012, at just 24 weeks, one weighing 720 grams and the other 665 grams. They were two of three. Their sister died on her first day. So they are not twins, and to refer to them as two of triplets involves too much explanation, and too much painful recollection. So ‘the girls’ it is.
We heard the news of their imminent arrival when we were in France. We had gone there with a van jam-packed with furniture in a freezing cold February (15° below) and it was the first time we had slept in the house. Not a week we are likely to forget. The morning after the news came, we drove off in the van at 5:30, every road an ice-rink, so that my wife could get to Toulouse airport for the first flight home.
I was in France again just before Easter that year, getting the house organised, when another call came from England, with the desperate news that one of the girls was so ill that she might not survive the weekend. Another dash home. A doctor took the decision to disregard every rule in the book, to try something that on the face of it was crazy. On Easter Saturday we held our breath. The next morning we breathed again. We are not religious in any conventional way, but that Easter Sunday did bring what we can only conceive of as a miracle.
All through that summer, the miracle continued to be wrought for both of them. One was in hospital for more than four months, the other for more than five, a lot of that time in incubators. The care of the doctors and nurses in the two hospitals was outstanding, as was the love, persistence and resilience of the girls’ parents. As with all very premature babies, fears existed for a while of possible long-term damage, but those fears have long since been laid to rest. Now, two tiny little beings have grown into boisterous, healthy four year-olds, far too heavy to bounce up and down on their step-grandfather. As I have attempted to tell them, with nil effect.
Last week, the girls completed their first term at school. One, said her school report, is ‘a delight to have in the class and has made an excellent start to school life. It is lovely to see her steadily gaining confidence, enjoying friendships and happily learning through her play. She has a great sense of humour.’ You can say that again. She is also a supreme individualist, even at the age of four. At present, I am a ‘very clever tiger rabbit’. I’ll settle for that.
The other is ‘a delightful, happy and friendly girl. She has settled well into life in Reception … and is a great role model to others. She loves to dress up; we often have Kitty the cat cycling around the roadway! She also loves to draw and has drawn some extremely detailed pictures. Unicorns and horses seem to be very popular!’ And, just at the moment, reindeer.
So these two, and their parents, are here for a French Christmas, which promises to be remarkably similar to an English Christmas. They have been here many times now, but it is not only these visits that connect them indissolubly with this house. This house is where we were when they arrived.
The real world is never far away, however. On Friday we visited the Germanic Christmas market in Castres: an innocent delight for two of the party; less innocent for the rest of us. Next week the blog will return to these old, intractable difficulties. For now, though, I am more than happy to be spending my first Noël with two small miracles.