Determined that the children should not spend a lonely Christmas, I laid my plans early. In the autumn I asked John, a great and platonic friend, if he'd like to come down from Wales and spend Christmas with us. He agreed enthusiastically - generously, it now seems to me. Other people's kids opening stockings at 3am would not be every bachelor's idea of fun.
Early in December I embarked on a new relationship with a man - let us call him Joe - who, I soon discovered, was neurotically jealous. He was small, skinny, and highly-strung. He harboured huge, unexplained resentments against his family. He had spent his last two Christmases nursing them and a six-pack of Special Brew, alone in his bedsit. I invited him to spend the 25th with us, too, without actually mentioning John.
By Christmas week I was in a state of high tension. Was I mad to bring these two together at such a volatile time? Joe, having been apprised of John's impending arrival, was threatening to boycott the festive season. The children were asking why we hadn't got a Christmas tree. John had failed to confirm his plans. I thought - by now I almost hoped - that he probably wouldn't turn up.
In this hotbed of emotion (it isn't only families that wind each other up at Christmas) I had three choices. I could ring John and cancel the invitation (unthinkable). I could tell Joe to get lost (impossible). Or I could sit back passively and await my fate.
At about five o'clock on the afternoon of Christmas Eve there was a thunderous knocking on the front door. I opened it, to be confronted by a 7ft Christmas tree, freshly cut and transported by train and bus all the way from Wales. It smelled resinous, piney, wild: a completely different species from the stunted shrubs at the local greengrocer. As Joe was taking in this apparition, the scarcely less wild and resinous figure of John, who happened to be 6ft 6 and 15 stone, emerged from behind it. He clasped me and the children in a huge and hearty embrace. 'Happy Christmas]' he said. 'Who's this?'
I quailed. 'Joe,' I said nervously, 'I'd like you to meet John. An old friend.' I added emphatically. They looked at each other like a Jack Russell squaring up to a Great Dane. It was a tense moment. They shook hands. Just then the younger of my two children said, 'Mummy, Mummy, look] It's snowing]'
I cannot remember a better Christmas. Some genius had given us a sledge, and we all went tobogganing on Hampstead Heath at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning, making the very first tracks in its virgin snow. We played practical jokes, ate hugely, laughed non-stop. The children were spoilt rotten; never was my cooking so appreciated; and John and Joe, new men before their time, did all the washing up.