Joanna Briscoe: At the Sharp End

Help! I've never had to cook Christmas lunch before, and Sainsbury's is out of satsumas
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The Independent Online

Help! Mercy mild. It's only three more sleeps till Christmas Day and I'm supposed to do something about it. It suddenly occurs to me that for my entire life, I've cheerfully or pretend-reluctantly crash-landed into other people's Christmases expecting applause and clementines. Namely, all-inclusive Christmas packages laid on by parents. Friends' parents. Parents' friends. Friends with especially nice and loggy houses in France. Otherwise, it's meant scoffing curry while laughing on someone's floor or occasionally buggering off to a far-flung, forget-all-about-it, non-Christian beach.

"I've never cooked a Christmas lunch in my life," now claims my best friend, a preternaturally responsible mother of two, aged 43. A raft of other high-functioning mature adults of my acquaintance, aged 30-50, agree. That'll do for a trend, then.

It seems you can reach fully, fully formed adulthood, juggle tax returns, school runs and God-I'm-so-exhausted careers, and yet still waddle around like a grotesquely enlarged infant when it comes to Christmas-Crimbo-Crimble, half expecting a stocking and certainly not expecting to have to buy food.

The second shock of the season is that there's no food left. Apparently, the last ordering date expired some days ago, and upon attempting a spot of simple seasonal victualling, I find a snowy screen of blank slots. Exactly where are the purple bits with the times on them? Hoovered up by snidey competitive bastards in the know, quite clearly.

There's no pesto left. There's no room at the inn. A frisson of indignant, perversely excited emotion plumes through me as I'm confronted by this new challenge. Perhaps I shall have to go out grubbing for turnips on the heath. That's the Parliament Hill end, not the Hampstead side. Or buy things from Londis. Or even drive to a supermarket, something I haven't done since circa 2001, because these days such choosing, jostling and lugging seems as quaintly and affrontingly labour-intensive as dragging a plough. One might as well hire a cow and milk the beast on the roof terrace. At this rate there'll be no crib for a bed.

Yuletide virgin

My only previous experience of Christmas housewifery has entailed martyrishly helping my mum cut crosses into the tops of Brussels sprouts, and shouting suggestions for more tangerines when she set out, probably in September, down 18 miles of country lane to the Cash and Carry.

It seems against nature, a grotesque wobbling swizz, that I won't still be lolling on a sofa semi-drunk on slightly crystallising liqueur chocolates and being first to felt-tip the Radio Times. I want to have a snooze, tangerines on tap, and a crying or sulking opportunity. Instead I'll be rising at quarter past six, no up-with-the-lark grandmother to help out, fighting the kids when they want to watch Christmas Balamory and I want something more grown-up like The Railway Children. It's not fair.

So there's this whole mini-generation of us, as I continue to conjecture hastily: yule virgins, with young snarly kids and at least one increasingly oldster parent, who suddenly realise the time has come to host the festive potlatch and think it all happens magically. I know the papers have been banging on about internet supermarket shortages, but of course I didn't believe them. That would be like thinking there's going to be a petrol drought because a vat or two blew up in Hemel Hempstead and the papers got excitable, when in reality the Government will just murder a few more Iraqis in the name of anti-terrorism so the electorate can run their SUVs and grumble if unleaded's a few pence up.

So how exactly am I supposed to know when to pre-book a turkey and buy brandy buttery sort of things? How do others get so wised up? I think there's cheating going on. It's people whose mothers live near them who are in the know and snaffled up all the deep-filled mince pies. What I want is an accelerated nanny state just over Christmas: as many bus lane cameras as they want in exchange for cars with tannoys coasting around announcing that Camden Sainsbury's is running out of satsumas.

Tangerine dream

To spread cheer and to feel good about myself, I once did a shift at a Christmas lunch for lonely pensioners. I had to ferry in old people who had already been standing outside their bungalows in the cold for an hour before their pick-up time, ringing the centre when the lift for them and their cat didn't turn up 20 minutes early.

However, even that catering stint only required sailing round with turkey slices someone else had slaughtered, bought and cooked while 90-year-old men eyed up my arse and volunteers wrestled with each other in their eagerness to work off their middle-class guilt. The day left me feeling gloriously rejuvenated, while on matters of household management I was none the wiser.

Slack dads are allowed to be slack and it's funny. Slack mums are generally just perceived as sluts. Those of us who can't get our seasonal acts together are probably statistically likely to be either prostitutes or alcoholics. Fuck it. I'm still very concerned about my own tangerine in the toe, not to mention my bag of chocolate coins.

'Sleep with Me', a novel by Joanna Briscoe, is published by Bloomsbury (£9.99)