West London is not a place synonymous with privacy and seclusion, but Overdale Road was an exception. It was a cozy, welcoming place, probably because it was not a street that led anywhere. Little traveled, it fostered an almost secret isolation that grew even more palpable at Christmas. Each house leaned against its neighbor in mutual support as they descended the gentle slope from Mr. Barry's shop at the top of the road to an old cobblestone alleyway at the bottom--all that was left of a Victorian stable yard, which led to a flight of steps up to shops on the main street, Northfields Avenue. Large London plane trees lined both sides of the road. Even leafless in the depths of winter, they stood guard over us, their dappled brown and grey bark complementing the warm red and yellow brick and the elegant white Victorian window frames of the houses, their pastel glass panes glowing with the warmth of open fires within. At night, the winter moonlight and the orange glow of small street lamps through the trees cast fantastic spidery patterns onto the smooth grey slate roofs turning them into surreal moving pictures. The London Underground lines ran along behind the road, and the muted clatter and rumble of the trains as they slowed to enter nearby Northfields Station were muffled enough not to intrude on the peace of the night yet were a reminder that you weren't alone in the world as you lay in bed in the dark.
The first Christmas without my mother was probably the hardest. Christmas was essentially her holiday: she had always organized everything and poor Dad was at a loss as to where to start. A thousand and one little things that she had taken care of having suddenly fallen on his shoulders, he fumbled around looking for the Christmas card list, the battered old black biscuit tin covered in gold Chinese pheasants that contained the decorations, the special tray for cooking the turkey. We all pitched in however, and soon we had the house decked out and looking almost as good as if she had done it herself. Due to Dad's poor sight, I filled in the Christmas cards and passed them to him to sign. We wasted at least half a dozen before Dad remembered not to sign my mother's name after his.
We had always bought our tree from Old Henry, the flower seller who had a stall outside Northfields Station. A good friend of my father, he looked like an old leather bulldog, all loose skin and wrinkles, the result of an entire lifetime spent outside in all weather. The bulldog effect was completed by the lack of any upper teeth that meant his bottom jaw protruded and the lower teeth stuck up giving him a defiant, stubborn look that certainly matched his character. Henry was not averse to a little shady trading from time to time. Although his contacts in the local underworld were well known, his flower selling business gave him an air of innocence and was a perfect cover for black market dealing when the opportunity arose. At Christmas he would sell trees from his little flower stall, but he would never have more than one tree on display. You had to tell him what size and what type you wanted, and then it would appear the next day. There were rumors that the trees actually came from a golf course outside London whose owners had no idea they were even missing. My father told me how one night in our local pub The Plough a rival flower seller accused Henry of getting his floral supplies from the corporation graveyard, prompting outrage from Henry and howls of laughter from the other patrons as they knew Henry well enough to know the accusations were entirely possible. The two flower men were squaring off for a fistfight, dodging and weaving, throwing punches that didn't actually connect and generally avoiding actually fighting until Gladys the landlady threw a bucket of water over the pair of them and ended the argument. Henry protested her interference when he was "winning," and Gladys said that they both looked like a couple of wilting daffodils to her and that she'd seen enough.
So Dad announced he was going to see Henry about our tree at the week's end and told me to get out the lights and see if they all worked. Christmas Day would fall on a Friday that year, and we usually put up our tree the week before the big day so when Friday arrived I had already removed the decorations from under the stairs and had them spread out on the sofa trying to remember where each decoration had been hung the year before. Dad came home from work a little later than usual. He grunted and pushed as he tried to force his bike and a large rectangular cardboard box through the small front door without much success. Finally, he burst free of the doorframe and careened right through the narrow hallway, the stairs stopping the trajectory of the bike but Dad and the box tumbling into the living room in a heap. I pointed to the box as Dad climbed to his feet and pretended that his arrival had been nothing out of the ordinary.
"What's that?" I queried.
"It's a surprise. Go and put the kettle on, and I'll tell you all about it."
I complied and returned from the kitchen to find he had torn open the box and was gently extracting a large artificial Christmas tree.
"What do you think of that?" he said. "It has lights and everything."
I stared at the mound of dark green plastic bristles and didn't really know what to think. "Is it a Christmas tree?" I ventured.
"It is indeed."
"Doesn't look much like one," I sniffed.
"Sure it has to be put together first, son. And aren't you the perfect man for the job? With all them plastic model kits you're always making, you'll have it together in no time." And with that he wandered off into the kitchen to make his dinner leaving me staring blankly at his new acquisition. I followed him into the kitchen.
"But we always get a real tree from Old Henry," I moaned.
"Well, this year we won't have to," he replied, dropping three large potatoes into a saucepan. "Anyway, I won that in a raffle at work. They're all the rage you know. Not many people have them."
"I'm not surprised," I mumbled. "Looks like you need a degree to put it together."
"Go on, get cracking," he said. "I want to see that up and running by the time I've had my dinner."
He sort of got his wish. I assembled it, but it looked nothing like a Christmas tree on the first or second try. Eventually it looked respectable, but it took a full twenty-four hours to get to that stage. He had actually finished his dinner the following day before he looked it up and down and said, "Right, that will have to do."
It did look very nice, nothing as impressive as the fake trees we have today, but there wasn't a lot around to compare it to back then so we gave it the benefit of the doubt.
"What are we going to do with the old lights?" I asked. I had hung all the decorations around the house and had had a fair amount of success in approximating their position by looking for the marks left by drawing pins in the wallpaper from previous years. The old tree lights were all that were left, and I had wound them up in a large ball ready to put them back under the stairs.
"I've been thinking about that," said Dad without taking his eyes off the television. His favorite cowboy series The High Chaparral was on, and he hated to miss a minute of it. Every week he would say to nobody in particular, "Them Apaches were fierce divils, weren't they?" as the weekly forty-minute battle between the Texas settlers and the natives raged on.
During a lull in the fighting he told me that on his bike the day before he had passed one of the large department stores in Ealing Broadway that had used flashing lights to spell out "Happy Christmas" and other festive messages by affixing the lights to the window. "I thought we might have a go at that tomorrow," he said.
The next day, Sunday, found me standing in the front garden facing the window directing Dad as he sellotaped the old lights to the inside of the glass to spell our Christmas message to the world. We went through a reel of tape as we discovered that our lights weren't long enough for most popular greetings. We finally settled on the word peace as it fit both the window size and the length of available cord, and after the usual false starts and rewrites due to everything's having to be in reverse from the inside of the window, Dad pronounced it "satisfactory," plugged in the cord--and "Peace" blazed out into Overdale Road in assorted colors every ten seconds. He stood in the front garden for a good ten minutes admiring his work before realizing he was going to be late for evening Mass and rushed inside to change his clothes.
He flew out the front door shouting up the stairs to my brother and me, "Don't stay up too late," which was his usual way of telling us he wouldn't be back until late himself. After he'd gone, Mike and I stood out in the front garden watching the flashing sign.
"Looks good," I said.
"Bit boring," he said.
"We could change it," I said.
And so we did.
Well, I was eleven years old and Mike was nine so it seemed hilarious and normal enough to two small boys. The amazing thing is that after we spent an hour or so laughing and giggling, we forgot all about it. Since Dad's eyesight was extremely poor due to an industrial accident, he never noticed it either, possibly because we had changed only a few letters, which didn't much alter the overall shape of the display.
Christmas Day came and went. It wasn't at all bad, not quite the same as when our mother organized it but not far off. We were all quite surprised at how well it had gone after all the trepidation. Dad was particularly relieved and was already talking about ways to improve things for next year.
A few days before New Year's Eve, Dad asked me to run up to Mr. Barry's shop for a box of matches and a bottle of milk. "Quick as you like, if not quicker," he said with his usual laugh.
I arrived in the shop and wasted no time finding the things we needed and joined the small queue waiting to pay. Two older ladies were ahead of me, a large round woman in a saggy, red wool coat and curlers and a small thin-faced woman who wore a blue nylon housecoat and a pair of carpet slippers, which were soaking wet from walking through the puddles outside the shop. They were not Overdale residents, they lived in Devonshire Road, which ran parallel to Overdale; however, they were discussing an Overdale resident and I idly opened one ear to eavesdrop.
"No, she's not been well at all. They've taken her to the doctor, but he says there's not much can be done."
"That's a shame. She's not that old either, is she?"
"No, she's only sixty-three."
"Does her sister live with her?"
"No, she lives on the other side of the road."
"Where's that then, near Mrs. Corrigan?"
"No, on the other side, a couple of doors down from the penis house."
"Oh yes, I know where she is now."
And then with an awful jolt I remembered what we had done. I dropped the milk and matches and ran home to remove the evidence.
Incredibly, nobody in the street ever said anything to my father. They knew he was struggling to raise us alone, and perhaps they didn't want to add to his burden. That wouldn't surprise me at all. The people of Overdale all knew our situation and were incredibly kind to us when Mum left. Mike and I never told Dad even when we were adults, and he went to his grave many years later none the wiser.
I still remember, as I peeled the Christmas lights off the window all those years ago, how it suddenly dawned on me just how much trouble we could have been in if Dad had found out. I thought about all the neighbors that must have seen that crude flashing message and I felt embarrassed--but only briefly--because something else, far more important, dawned on me.
We were famous!.