Are we being humbugs this Christmas? I wanted to try it. Just to see if you pare it down what is left. No tree, no cards, no presents, no special food. But there are candles, silver-pine cones, a tree decoration from Habitat and some mistletoe. I like the simplicity. I’m a puritan. And yet, and yet I do also love the pomp, the tradition and opulence of Christmas. There is a hotel in the Cotswolds that we have often visited during the winter months. I like nothing better than to sit by their fire with pots of tea and smell the pine of their Christmas tree. The decorations are completely over the top. But it pleases me. There is grandeur, excess, opulence and glorious aromas. How to reconcile such opposing desires. I relish buying presents for those I care for and yet I find the over-spending rather alarming. I adore the wrapping, the making beautiful and yet I also love a bare white wall. And it is nice to step out of the panic.

Hello both, shouts Sandra from her till, you ignoring me? Let’s go to Mark, he’d whispered, but it was too late. I like her. There is something poignant about her bluster. She is wearing a elf’s hat. Like me hat? she asks. Someone said I should be wearing little red boots too, she says, but you wouldn’t see them from under the till, would you, I said to her. You ready for Christmas? she continues. Friends of mine aren’t bothering, she says, they’re having egg n’ chips Christmas Day.

They opened at six this morning. Had many customers? I ask her. Six, she says. Read the news yet? she asks. Give me a chance only just got the papers, he says. I watched Sky News, she replies, something about Miss Universe, one killed, thirty injured. You entering this year? I ask. No, not this year, thought I’d give the others a change, else they ain’t got an ‘ope ‘av they?

Her hands are tiny. Her arms strain beneath her sleeves. There is a festering, slightly acrid smell to her. We pass Jude on the way out. Nice antlers, he calls out. She smiles.

An astronaut on Desert Island Discs. I love Simon and Garfunkel, he says, especially that line, ‘Cathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping.’ He gave nothing away, at least not overtly. His loneliness out there in the galaxy was only hinted at. A gentleman. Elegant.

They didn’t promise rain this morning. I went anyway. I always do. In the dark. A man walking past a parked car, under a street lamp. He smiles at me.

On the radio a young man remembering his father learning ‘The Knowledge’ at the dinner table.


It’s because it can’t be as it used to be. My parents still together and agreeing not to fight. My mother in all her finery. Us in our new dresses. Patent leather shoes, virgin soles on the carpet. Candles lit, table dressed. Sherry. The fire lit. Crackers. The tree resplendent, presents spilling out from its base. The dogs, overexcited and banished to the kitchen. Dad handing out the presents, laboriously reading out all the labels. Tearing wrapping. (There’s a bag over here. Hold onto the labels so that you know what’s what for Thank You letters.) The smell of annuals, bath salts,  body lotion, chocolate. A novelty game. A Sindy doll with accessories. Taking my pile upstairs to linger over. A mixture of pleasure and disappointment, one impossible to separate from the other. Tiredness. Hanging up my dress. Hearing the back door open and my mother calling to the dogs.

A life made rich with memories. I am free to choose. It is enough.

The sky is milk-white. The windows spattered with rain.

We still haven’t come up with the state, he said. Something e ending with a. Six letters. Nevada, I said. Where did that come from? Brilliant, he said. Clever girl. Clever girl.

By Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.