Christmas 2003 will always live in my memory as the Christmas that turned me off all Christmases, for ever. Almost.
We were living then, as now, in Paris, and decided in a moment of madness to undertake a fortnight-long UK tour to showcase our recently recorded greatest hits, namely our son, then nearly three, and our daughter, then seven months.
I think we imagined it would give us a break from the daily routine of predawn rise, two-buggy sprint – opposite directions, of course – to creche (daughter) and nursery school (son), office, reverse sprint, bedtime battle, wine, collapse and repeat.
It didn’t, of course. We set off on a bright Saturday 10 days before Christmas in a car piled high with suitcases, essential small-child-related gear, badly wrapped presents from France and much good cheer. We returned two weeks later on our knees.
The tour took in venues in Bristol, Dorset, west London, south London, north London, Coventry and Kent, staying with old friends and family. We spent no longer than two nights in any one place. It was nuts.
Very quickly, the children lost all sense of when it was night and when it was day, and began waking at six, then five, then four, then three in the morning. The boy, who had been out of nappies for some time, began peeing surreptitiously behind people’s sofas.
We had failed to consider the stress on us of maintaining a sunny disposition with a succession of individually lovely, but collectively exhausting, hosts, and remembering all those Things That Must Not On Any Account Be Lost or Forgotten: items of washed but only half-dry laundry and kids’ inseparable objects of the moment – cuddly bear/cow/rabbit – without which even a few hours of kip was unimaginable.
After a week, we had all developed stinking colds and hacking coughs, the boy’s rapidly developing into a bronchiolite. (Unknown to British medicine, this is a French infant malady curable only by prolonged pummelling from a kinésithérapeute, AKA a physiotherapist.)
So all was looking good by the time we arrived at my sister’s on Christmas Eve.
Mum and Dad were there, too, and we stayed awake for long enough to eat some cheese and biscuits, and drink more sherry than was good for us before heading to bed, confident in the knowledge that we would be woken up at 4am by a small boy wondering, between coughing fits, when he could open his presents.
As were we. Somehow – ask me not how – we managed to entertain him and his sister, who awoke an hour or so later, until 8am, when the rest of the family emerged. There was, I recall, some breakfast. And then came presents.
It was at this point the thing happened that made that Christmas almost the Christmas that turned me off all Christmases. The boy had been given a toy, a red-and-blue plastic helicopter with a Spider-Man attached, with which he was immensely pleased and which he promptly dropped and broke.
Now, I should say that at this stage in his young life he was a lot more French than he was English: his mother was (still is, in fact) French, he was at a French nursery school, all that. He was talking a lot, but despite my best anglophone efforts, never in English.
For long seconds I watched his brain work, his small brow furrowing as he wrestled with what he should say. The process went something like this: OK, I’m now very, very cross. Ah, but I’m in England, where Dad comes from. I have to say the thing that English people say when they’re very, very cross.
And so he did. In front of his mum, dad, aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather and cousins, my not-quite-three-year-old son proudly pronounced: “Fucking computer.”
Well, it made my Christmas, anyway.
Of course, everyone turned on me, asking archly where exactly I thought my son may have learned this particular expression and whether it was appropriate for a child his age. But I was too busy thinking: the boy is really going to be bilingual. Not only that, but he may actually be quite funny.
He and his sister are now both. And if they are fine teenagers, I would like to think it’s at least partly because their whole lives long, they have known there are always two different words to describe everything – two different ways of looking at the world.
It’s harder to be narrow-minded, prejudiced and intolerant if you know that, isn’t it? That’s the thought I cherish, anyway.
It took us weeks to recover, though. The day after we made it home to Paris, we dropped the kids off at the creche and the nursery school, went straight back to bed and slept till two in the afternoon. There were doctor’s visits, antibiotics, the dreaded kiné.
But a Christmas that was in almost all other respects an unmitigated disaster was, for ever, saved.