I wanted everything to be perfect for my new girlfriend. Then the Christmouse turned up

“Be careful,” I warned E as she stood on the doorstep, suitcases next to her. “You’re walking into a trap.”

I meant it literally. There was a mouse in the house and my dad had been trying to catch it for days. Standard traps having proved useless, he had spent hours on YouTube researching homemade devices and had fashioned an elaborate rollercoaster of doom from a plastic bottle, a bucket and a piece of wood. The kitchen looked like a scene from a Wallace and Gromit film.

It was Christmas Day, 2017, and E, my girlfriend of several months, had flown into London that morning from New York, where we live, to spend the holiday with my family. It was the first time they were meeting, and I was one part nerves, two parts effervescent excitement. Even though it was early days, I knew E was a keeper. I desperately wanted everything to be perfect and the Christmouse hadn’t been part of the plan.

But life doesn’t always go to plan. It can change in an instant. The fact that E was celebrating the holidays with my family that year was particularly special because, just a few months earlier, there had been a moment when I thought I was going to lose my mum. She’d gone into hospital with a suspected heart attack, and been booked in for an angioplasty – a routine procedure. When my dad, my sister and I arrived at the cardiac unit to pick her up, the nurse gave us a worried look and ushered us into a dark little room. “I’m sorry,” he said gravely. “Your mum is no longer with us.” After far too long a pause, in which I nearly had a heart attack myself, he continued. “She’s been moved to the intensive care unit.” The doctor had accidentally cut my mum’s artery, and she had almost bled to death. She was in intensive care for days.

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The book Christmas tree.

The book Christmas tree. Photograph: Courtesy of Arwa Mahdawi

She made a full recovery, thankfully, and had built the bulk of our Christmas book tree (a festive tree made out books) that year, while my sister and I squabbled over the creative direction. It had turned out surprisingly well, Pinterest-worthy even, and the moment E stepped into the house she was ushered into the living room and forced to admire it. There was tea, there were hugs, and E was absorbed into the family. The festivities were under way and E’s first experience of a traditional Palestinian-British south London Christmas was about to begin!

At that moment, alas, disaster struck. In the post-breakfast lull, E wanted a quick look at the family photo albums. While these contain many pages of Cute Baby Arwa, they also unsparingly document my awkward bowl-cut-and-fluorescent-tracksuit phase. From the ages of seven to 11, I looked like a young, gap-toothed, Richard III on ketamine; truly I was a sight to behold and then get as far away as possible from.

Thankfully, it was time to do just that. Having flown 3,459 miles to get to my house for the holidays, my sleep-deprived girlfriend then discovered that there were a couple more miles to go. For the past few years my family have spent Christmas at a dear friend’s house along with her family and friends. Laden with booze, food and presents, we set off and I pointed out local landmarks to E as we walked. To the right: the tree my dad once chained himself to when the council erroneously tried to cut it down, mistaking it for the dead tree they were supposed to remove. To the left: one of south London’s most renowned chicken-and-chip shops. Straight ahead: the school hall where I briefly went to Woodcraft Folk (hippy scouts) and had to play cooperative musical chairs, one of the least fun games ever invented.

Poor E: after spending 45 minutes sprinting through London with groceries, she was immediately set to work peeling parsnips when we arrived at our destination. When she wasn’t being quizzed by the 1,000 new people she had just met, or being plied with gin, I educated her on the finer points of Christmas cracker etiquette. Christmas crackers aren’t very common in the US; however, when I spent Thanksgiving with E’s parents in Boston her family friends brought Thanksgiving crackers with them – which they described as “poppers”, much to my amusement and nobody else’s. I’m obsessed with crackers, so I’d been thrilled by their appearance. And then was shocked when the table proceeded to pop their poppers individually. Instead of sharing with a neighbour, they just grabbed a side with each of their hands and opened it like that. It was the most American thing I’ve ever seen. I was horrified.

Now it was E’s turn to be horrified: another walk was at hand. Before we could eat, it was time for the Great Christmas Stroll. “It’s sort of an English tradition,” I told her as the household filed into the drizzle for a bracing circuit of the common. “You have to suffer a little bit in order to enjoy yourself.”

The rest of the day was perfect. Crackers were opened in the appropriate manner; there was a lot of food, a lot of bad jokes, and a very competitive Christmas quiz. I have bah-humbugged my way through a lot of Christmases, but, that year, I think I realised how enormously lucky I was to celebrate the holidays with such a loving and accepting family. Christmas is a time to remember not to take anything or anyone for granted and be thankful for everything that you have.

I was certainly thankful for E’s resilience. Having barely slept on the flight over, she must have been awake for about 36 hours straight that Christmas. At about 10pm, we left for Mum and Dad’s before the rest of the family – arriving back to a very quiet house where not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. Upon inspection, it was clear that the homemade trap had proved quite useless.


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