In some ways 1981 was my happiest year. I don't know why; I loved being 12.
We had fiercely sticky, fondanty snow-spray that clagged up the tree baubles and the windows when we scraped at it in January. Nothing smelled more like Christmas than that chemical smell of the fake snow. Except the satsumas that came in twists of blue tissue paper, delivered in a box.
On holiday from my first year in the comp, I'd play a little in the snow and then I'd go home to write my novel. Outside, my brother and the ginger twins next door flew about on skates and down hills on black bin bags. When I'd written enough I'd take a leisurely cruise about the cul-de-sacs of our council estate on a Fine Fare shopping trolley.
That winter we put a duvet over the four of us as we sat on the settee. We'd have crisp crumbs all over it and the dog would be lying on the floor, under one corner, getting hairs on it.
"If anyone came round here and saw us all sitting like this, they'd think we were mad." Mam looked along the settee at us. "Or they'd think we were weird."
We'd watch telly all night, the sitcoms, the soaps and the quiz shows. Under the duvet it was drowsy and hot. Our stepdad would be sent to make some tea and we'd have it with crisps and chocolate. Working our ' way through selection boxes and crinkly stockings. Tooth-breaking toffee, vanilla, caramel. Our stepdad sat at one end of the duvet, then it was Mam, then me, then my brother, Mark. We must have all been quite skinny to get on that settee.
My brother was certainly skinny then. In the autumn he'd fallen down the stairs and we'd found him at the bottom, taking an epileptic fit. "You were foaming at the mouth," Mam told him afterwards.
I went knocking on the neighbours' doors. We didn't have a phone. The ginger twins' mother came round and she took one look at Mark and thought he'd died. She rang the doctor for us and that's when we found out he had an actual hole in his heart. I thought, if you had a hole in your heart, all the blood would run through it like water down the plughole.
Mam and Charlie weren't ones for going out to the clubs and pubs. We keep ourselves to ourselves, Mam would say. That was why no one would think us mad or weird for all sitting under a duvet, watching Christmas telly. Because no one would be coming in and seeing us like that. If anyone had knocked at the front door, the duvet would have been whisked away, as would the cups and trays and the bags of crisps. But no one would come knocking at the door. We knew that.
Charlie had a thick beard and a stammer, which meant he never spoke to Mark and me. He'd moved in with us a few years before, in l978. That was in the old house, on the other estate. Now we were in the middle of the estate everyone called the "Black houses" (above). It was easy to get lost. We lived bang in the middle of this maze of black houses.
Charlie sat at one end of the settee, so he could nip out to put the kettle on or take the dog, Duke, for a walk in the dark. It was also because he wouldn't sit next to me or Mark. I think he'd have been uncomfortable, so Mam sat between us. In my page-a-day diary I'd been calling him "Dad" recently. I couldn't quite call him that to his face.
That winter Mam was making her Redicut rugs. She'd made a few winter scenes, with stark, black trees against a red winter sun and all this white. She had the canvas matting on her lap, over the duvet and she was fiddling with the special tagging tool. The pincers were clicking all night. They would pause as she selected the right colour from the cartons of wool. As we watched the telly I listened to the tagging tool's click, dying to have a go.
That gap between Christmas and New Year always seemed safe to me. It was the gap between times. Just like being 12 was. I used to want to ask: Is Christmas still on? Are we still having it? You'd have Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and then Boxing Day, when we'd go to my Big Nana's, and then the day after Boxing Day, when we'd probably look at the sales in Darlington. But what about after that?
That Christmas Eve I'd eaten too many satsumas and been sick as a dog. I'd thrown up all Christmas Day, had no dinner and lay on the settee moaning. I was furious with myself, bringing up bright green and orange.
Mam came up with the real reason, and it was that I'd worried myself sick. Over tea on Christmas Eve we were having tomato soup she had said: "I don't know why you're excited. All you're getting for Christmas is new clothes."
I watched Mark look up, wide-eyed, from his soup bowl.
"You can wear your new clothes all Christmas Day." She looked at Charlie and started laughing. "And you're not getting anything else."
Charlie chuckled. "They can wear their new clothes and play with their old toys."
They were laughing together, so I knew that they were kidding us. I hated being such a spoilt brat that I was looking disappointed. I felt sick. I hated the thought of sitting in new clothes and playing with old stuff.
Mam always went mad at Christmas. She always bought us an indecent number of presents. We were poorer this year, we knew that. Maybe the clothes thing was real.
In the gap between Christmas and New Year, when I knew I was safe, it was especially galling to be sick. Being sick was what I did on Sunday nights, Monday mornings when school dread was coming on. But holidays like this were full of days that made you think you'd never be going back to school. The school buildings lay dark, across the fields of snow. Somehow those prefab corridors and pebble-dashed blocks had been spirited away.
What I'd actually been given for Christmas was a desk in blond wood with five deep drawers, and every kind of stationery you could think of. Felt-tips and drawing books and Biros, rubbers, pencils, sharpeners, compasses, rulers, paints, brushes, envelopes, hole punches, stapler guns, and those clicky things with wheels for making labels out of plastic tape. And best of all, 20 tiny, beautiful bottles of coloured inks. Each had an illustration on their label to suit the colour.
On Christmas night I spilled the contents of the apple-green bottle inside my top desk drawer. That was the drawer in which I kept my new page-a-day diary. Already the book smelled of green ink and fresh pine.
That night I started l982 early. I opened all the vivid bottles of ink and set them in a row under my desk lamp, choosing a colour to write in.
P aul Magr's latest novel, 'Something Borrowed', is published by Headline ReviewReuse content