In the novel The Count of Monte Cristo, the hero Edmond, imprisoned in the Chateau d’If, finds himself sentenced to be flogged every year on the date of his arrival. Naturally this prays on his mind, and time passes both slowly within the confines of those terrible damp walls, but also with sickening rapidity as every day draws him nearer to inevitable torture.
I picture him sitting in his cell, worrying about his fate, long before it happens. Who ever gave him that sentence obviously knew the agonies endured by a certain type of mind with a vivid, apprehensive imagination. As an adult preparing for Christmas I empathise with him because the festival which I used to love with an almighty passion which made it the high point of my whole year, which I probably loved too much, now seems to stalk me all year round, promising pain.
More specifically I have a dread of being alone at Christmas. Even the thought of this, even though it’s only one short winter day, is almost too much to consider. It has never happened, I am never alone for the festival, but because I fear the idea so much, I seem to be drawing it closer, like a terrible inevitability.
Looking back, my Christmasses haven’t been that good for years. I spent at least twenty of them visiting family members by marriage, who disgusted me and I think the feeling was mutual. In those years I could have gone abroad, I had plenty of money to do it, could have gritted my teeth, gone to the airport alone and escaped to a beach, the Indian Ocean might have wiped Xmas out of my head but I never did. I once loved Christmas with such intensity that I clung to the memory and tried and tried to recreate it every year.
The first part would be OK; seeing my home and the tree decorated as it always was I could nearly get the heady old feeling back. There was the midnight service with my mother followed by her massive lunch. She only stopped producing that this year at the age of ninety two. But things had changed in our family. My brother had married, I had not and after my father died my mother and I had to go off to sit with other people, in strange rooms, watching their choice of TV, for hours and hours. I hated every minute as Christmas ticked away.
Now time has forced change on me. My mother is giving up her home and going into residential care. She came to me for the season this year and hopefully will do so again next year. I am not sure whether she will of course. The thought of her absence hangs over me. At present we are both spare parts again though, unmarried women pleased to get invitations from others.
This year in the house of a friend I felt very welcome but I saw a girl of about eleven staring at me coldly as I entered her home full of cheer and bonhomie. I offered her a present and she took it without a word. Over lunch she scowled at me. Secure in the bosom of her family I could see how she might resent strangers breaking into her magical Christmas cocoon.
I hope her Christmasses aren’t too good, or she may end up clinging to a distant dream, distorting present reality to hold onto something long gone, stalked all year round by the past with a cruel whip in its hands, unable to run away to something entirely new.