You always knew it was Christmas in our house because my mum would start on the Baileys. Not just drinking it, but making it. It was one of her proudest achievements. She had the “secret recipe” for Baileys. She made it in buckets stored under the bed.
“What’s in it, Mum?”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” she used to say as she decanted the beigey cream into real Baileys bottles to flog to our neighbours.
Another of her sayings was, “One of these days I’ll be gone for a soldier,” which really terrified me. What did it mean? She never answered that either.
The fake Baileys, a concoction of condensed milk and knock-off scotch, was a big hit, even though the Christmas dinner itself was often fraught.
“Here you are, you bunch of gannets,” she would say as she slapped it down on the table, refusing to eat any herself.
She sat smoking while we ate and would talk about how her life was “a fight against dirt”, a fight to feed us, the gannets. For as with so many women of her generation, she had glimpsed a better life and could never settle for the one she had.
She tried upgrading it the only way she knew how. Men. Getting different ones. Husbands, boyfriends, lovers, all initially promising something different. All somehow ending up much the same. That is why we were surprised when she suddenly announced, “This year we’re having a lesbian for Christmas.”
Jay the Lesbian would be arriving soon from New York. This was exotic beyond belief. My mother had met her when she was married to my father. The main thing about Jay, my mum said, was she was fat and needed to lose weight. She arrived in shocking pink tights and heavy-rimmed glasses. She ignored us children almost completely, except for once telling me that “Shakespeare is worth the effort, honey”. By this I understood she had a life of the mind.
She was always making some vile soup thing in the kitchen which I now see was a proto cabbage-soup diet.
“It’s ridiculous,” my mum said. “I know she sneaks down in the night and stuffs herself out of the fridge. She’s a gannet just like the rest of you.”
Yet Jay the lesbian gannet made our Christmas much less tense than normal. The home-made Baileys flowed. It was the only time I ever saw my mum enjoying the festivities. The house was a castle of tinsel and smoking and cabbagey smells. Then, just like that, Jay was gone and another man who would make Mum cry was installed.
Many years later I asked her about Jay. “Oh yes, she did try to interfere with me,” she said. She often referred to sex as “interference”. “It’s not my cup of tea but as it was Christmas I thought I should get on with it for a bit of peace.”
Oh, the sacrifices we women make for our children.