Let’s eat cake

It was quite uncanny. Oxford Street was pumping. It seemed that everyone in London chose to do their Christmas shopping yesterday. And they chose Oxford Street. Two minutes away from the mayhem, we found an oasis that made my heart smile: Maison Bertaux.

We’d walked from the busy high street in central London towards Soho. We walked through Soho Square and a block down from the Square, we found this place:

Maison Bertaux - an original in the heart of Soho

We’d talked about stopping somewhere for coffee and I insisted we try this place – it just looked, well, so un-high street.  It looked like a place that had a story to tell. We weren’t disappointed.

This is what we found when we stepped inside.

A little shop of edible treasures
Everything looks like it has a story to tell
Pink scarves and retro wall-lamps

I didn’t know where to look first – at the ornaments, at the writing on the mirrors, at the decor, at the newspaper clipping of Alexander McQueen, at the cakes, the cheeky meringue snowmen with their chocolate-roll sleighs … then we were asked what we wanted to order. I asked for a filter coffee and a cappuccino and was offered the only two coffees they have on offer: a café noir with milk and a café au lait. Being Christmas, we thought it would be rude not to try the homemade mince pies too.

We sat down at one of two tables in the small downstairs area and waited for our order.

I couldn’t stop staring at everything. One of the waiting staff noticed my curiosity.

“There’s so much to look at,” I said.

He said the place was full of stuff from the 140 years the cake shop had existed.

An old photo of the newly-opened Maison Bertaux

“Not sure if you can tell that we have our Christmas decorations up, or not,” he said, wryly.

We found our answer when we spotted a small Christmas tree on the piano.

Near to the Christmas tree was a signed copy of Noel Fielding’s book Scribblings of a Madcap Shambleton. A note stuck to the wall suggested there were more where that one came from. Noel is not only a genius, off-beat comedian, but also a regular here.

We chatted to one of the two sisters who own the cake shop. The younger sister of ‘a cross between Margaret Rutherford and Joan of Arc’, she told us the shop had remained the same since its establishment in 1871 – the same cake recipes, everything made fresh – every day – on the premises. She called it not only the oldest cake shop in the country, but also ‘the Ivy of cake shops’ in London, in that it attracts artists, actors and other real celebrities.

“It gets completely mental upstairs sometimes,” she said, as she rattled off names of people who frequent the cake shop.

The old stucco’d walls are grubby and absolutely, antiquely beautiful. The glass shelves behind the counter boast – among ornaments, bottles, scarves and a giant chocolate éclair ornament – a photograph of the shop in its early days. The glass shelves in the window groan with the most beautiful, creative and mouth-watering delights you care to imagine. A stream of white-capped chefs marched through from the kitchen to present their handiwork for the window for the day: trays of fresh-fruit tarts, marzipan figs, gateaux saint-honore, croissants, cakes, éclairs and ‘wormy pies’ (meringues with endless coils of cream). Equally, deliveries of sacks of flour arrived while we were there. It is a working kitchen, for sure.

A taste of Maison Bertaux specialities

We were told about the art on display upstairs. I went to have a quick look at it, but didn’t spend much time as I wanted to leave the few customers up there to enjoy their coffee and books in peace. I also made a quick stop in the ‘wee wee hut’; I was amused and delighted to see the toilet flushed with an ancient pull-chain.

I don’t think much has changed in this gorgeous tea shop since it was established by French communards in 1871. In today’s world of overpriced paper cups filled with have-a-nice-day coffees, and plates filled with cardboard pastries, I was completely entranced by this original gem. So close to the hubbub of the high street yet so far removed in every possible way.

It was pricey, yes, but when you step into an era of genuine tasty quality, creativity and originality in a room full of chaotic, colourful history – what else could you expect? It’s our new favourite tea shop. In the whole world.

Sunshine signing off for today!

 

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

I’ve never really thought of a red London bus as a chariot. But that’s exactly what we travelled in yesterday. Our bus driver told us so. Well, actually, he sang it so.

Travelling back from Greenwich to our home yesterday, our bus driver sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the top of his lungs, with all his heart and to the joy, horror and entertainment of his travelling charges. The cynical commuters wondered if he was p***ed drunk, some didn’t notice, some smiled coyly and two people alighted earlier than planned. The self-confessed “drunken bum” next to my niece and me was endlessly entertained. The proud owner of approximately two teeth, he chattered constantly and laughed like a drain. If he could stand up, he’d have been a stand-up. But his seated banter broadened our smiles all the way home, and the driver’s singing warmed my heart.

“He’s quite religious, I think. He’s trying to save you. Not me; I’m just a drunken bum. But he thinks he can save you. I don’t think he can, but that’s what he’s trying to do.”

Just another day in our joy-filled Christmas season. Here’s a short journey through our past week.

As we were due to leave London on Christmas Eve, we had to amend our tradition and see our Christmas movie a few days earlier. Burlesque proved to be a fun, lively and heart-warming introduction to the season – it totally fit the bill.

On Thursday evening, we went to the South Bank to visit the German market that appears next to the London Eye every Christmas. This is what we saw:

London Eye and the German Market at the South Bank, Christmas 2010
Stalls at the South Bank, Christmas 2010
Colourful carousel at the South Bank, Christmas 2010

It was VERY cold and we soon sought shelter and warmth within the hushed walls of the National Theatre, where a ragtime pianist was preparing for a free concert. We sat and listened to him for a while, before getting a call from a friend who was on her way to the Christmas Spectacular at the O2 Arena. She had a few spare tickets and invited us to join her.

What an amazing show – if we hadn’t been in the Christmas spirit already, that would have blasted us into it faster than the speed of light. What a special concert: an audience of 20,000, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Choral Society, the Capital Voices and four, world-class soloists who took us through Christmas song after Christmas song, some of which we were invited to sing along to. The last audience-included number was a rousing version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, complete with actions for each gift! Then the four singers ended the show with a medley of Christmas songs, punctuated with fireworks, exploding glitter balls and a shower of “snow”. What a special and unexpected Christmas gift the show turned out to be.

We left for south London on Christmas Eve to spend Christmas Day with dear friends from our university days. If we couldn’t be with our family, spending the day with wonderful friends that we’ve known pretty much forever was an excellent substitute. We ate well, laughed plenty, toasted our absent family and friends and listened to the Queen’s speech on television. We played games, did hideously badly at an Oxford-devised pub quiz and reminisced up a storm. What more could we ask for? A bit of snow, perhaps? Although we had no fresh snow, everything was covered in white and it felt for all the world that we had our first white Christmas. Close enough to make me happy.

So, in this build up to the end of 2010, may I wish you all much joy, beautiful relationships, happy work, fulfilling spiritual journeys, and may you dream, find or fulfil your dreams in 2011. I feel completely out of touch with my blogging buddies and the cyber world that I inhabit most week days. Please forgive me for not visiting blogs or commenting on all your posts; know that I love you all, my special readers and friends, and I will, like Arnie, be back.

Thank you, Mr Bus Driver, for keeping my Christmas joy alive yesterday with your delight-filled noise and for carrying us home in style. Keep singing and may your musical dreams find their chance to break out of that dreary uniform; you never know who may be listening.

Sunshine signing off for today.

Not just another winter’s tale

He was born on the winter solstice in Edinburgh in 1926. He died on Christmas Day in 1992, on the warm tip of Africa. A lovely, gentle, talented, troubled, kind soul he was. He was my father-in-law and this is his story.

As life and breath poured into his infant body on that cold and wintry December night in Edinburgh, so life and breath drained from his mother’s. She breathed her last and died that day. Life and loss. His young father was stricken with an overwhelming grief that veiled his joy at this brand new life.

My father-in-law was adopted by a family whose name we now bear. They lived on the island of North Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. This new family ran a hotel and my father-in-law spent his days living the life of a young, country lad: fishing and hunting and finding the best that the beautiful, bleak, cold island could offer. His days were underlined with sadness and a constant wondering about his father on the mainland. He knew who he was, he knew where he lived and he so longed to meet him.

As a young man he met and fell in love with a beautiful young woman from the mainland. They married and lived on the island, going over to the mainland for the birth of their first son. With the hope and promise of seeking their fortune in Africa, the three of them chose to join her brothers in Zimbabwe (southern Rhodesia as it was known then). He travelled ahead of his wife and son and, before he left, went to Edinburgh to meet his real father. He wondered nervously whether or not his father would welcome him. His fear of rejection turned him round again and off he went to begin a new life in Africa.

Son number two (my husband) was born in Zimbabwe, and the family enjoyed living in the warm, friendly heart of southern Africa. My father-in-law was a talented musician – a self-taught pianist and accordion player – and he played in a Scottish band. He would lose himself in his music, and played the piano with a gentleness of touch that kept me riveted. I often wondered where the music took him as I watched him play. When he died, I inherited his piano. Such a gift it was; such a gift.

He loved his sons and watched, with pride, as they grew into young men and created lives of their own. His daughters-in-law became part of his family, and he loved us with a gentle passion that I will never forget. His heart beamed as his grandchildren started to appear, and each of them loved their “Pops”, with his ready laughter and unconditional love and pride.

One day, when he was almost 60, he received a letter out of the blue. It opened with, “You don’t know me, but we’ve known about you all our lives…”

The writer of the letter told him his father – who was also her father – had been 23 years old when he was widowed. He had married again and had had some children, but she didn’t elaborate. She wrote of her father’s longing to meet him, but how, for fear of rejection, that had never happened. She told him his father had died in 1976. Oh the sorrow that both men had felt the same way, and their perceived fears had kept them from meeting each other.

The writer concluded her letter by saying she’d send him more detail of the family if he so wished. She added, however, that if the communication had made him uncomfortable, she would not continue and would, with respect, leave it at that.

He was amazed. My father-in-law wrote back immediately and asked to know more. He soon got a letter with details of his family tree. It turned out that at the time of his birth, and his mother’s death, he had an older sister. She was three years older than he was, and was raised in Edinburgh by a grandmother (we have yet to discover which grandmother this was). His father then remarried and had seven daughters and two sons. She shared some detail of the siblings, their names and where they lived.

The correspondence continued for a while. It wasn’t long before my father-in-law decided to travel back to Edinburgh to meet his new family. A brother travelled across from Canada to meet him. Most of the other siblings lived in or around Edinburgh. Great excitement, anticipation and a huge nervousness accompanied him on his journey.

He spent a number of days with his new-found family of half-siblings, and met his full sister too. This is the part that always gives me goose bumps: the siblings he met all said, without exception, that having him around was like having their dad back in the house. He had the same mannerisms as his father’s, he coughed like he did, he walked like he walked and he talked like he did. If that isn’t one for nature versus nurture, then I don’t know what is.

He returned to Zimbabwe with tales of his new-found family. A man of few words, he had plenty to say about his family and father and the joy of blood ties. It seemed to fill something of a hole in his heart.

Not long after that, he became ill with emphysema and struggled with ill-health for the rest of his life. He and my mother-in-law moved to Cape Town soon after we did, and enjoyed their retirement in the city nestling beneath the beauty of Table Mountain. Our boys have vague memories of their Pops, as they were both very small when he died. My older son, who was three when Pops died, told me Pops had gone to heaven and had been given a brand new body. I loved that thought.

So there it was that we celebrated Christmas in the warm sunshine of a Cape Town day in 1992. And as we celebrated the birth of the Saviour who breathed his first on that day so many many years ago, my father-in-law took his last, painful breath and we mourned. Joy and grief. So much joy and grief.

Sunshine signing off for today.

My African Christmas

Today is both the shortest and the longest day of the year, depending on which side of the equator you call home. While I am falling in love with the snow and the wintry charm of short days in London, I try to imagine South African sunshine lasting into long, balmy evenings. Please take up your gingerbread latte or chilled white wine, and join me on a journey through our Saffa Christmas.

My husband and I were both born in Zimbabwe; he to Scottish parents and me to South African parents. His family’s Celtic Christmas in Africa was always festive and loud, with lashings of alcohol, sword-dancing and tearful renditions of “My Ain Folk”. Ours usually involved a journey from Zambia or Zimbabwe to my parents’ home town of Cape Town, and loads of cousins and relatives and beaches and food. Together, we developed a Christmas tradition that merged the best of what we both knew and loved: booze and beaches. Not exclusively. Walk with me…

In our early married years, we would use every free moment, every spare dollar, to go and see a movie. Christmas Eve was the perfect opportunity to do just that, so that is something that we have done almost every year since we got married: a Christmas Eve movie. We took a break when our boys were small but roped them in as soon as they were old enough to sit through and enjoy a movie. It doesn’t have to be a Christmas movie, a feel-good movie will do, so “Love, Actually”, “The Holiday” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” have featured in our ritual on the night before Christmas.

Our drive home from the movie would always include a drive along Adderley Street – the high street through the centre of Cape Town – to see the Christmas lights (illuminations). These always incorporated nativity scenes alongside scenes of Africa. We would go home and sit by the decorated Christmas tree and, sometimes, sing Christmas carols together. We would all retire to bed, and – one by one – each of us would sneak back to the lounge to put Christmas gifts under the tree.

When our boys were small, we would put empty pillowcases at the ends of their beds, and Father Christmas would fill them during the night. Then he would have a mince pie and a cold drink (or a beer) that had been left for him next to the Christmas tree. He would usually leave a lovely letter for the boys too.

On Christmas morning, we would wake with the sparrows and launch into the excitement of wishing each other Merry Christmas and giving each other gifts. With paper and boxes all around, we would have coffee and mince pies for breakfast before either going to church, or preparing for the day ahead.

We always gathered together as family, and would alternate hosting the festivities at our various homes, although we always shared the catering. At our home, we made one long table that extended from one end of our dining room/lounge area to the wide-open French doors on to the swimming pool area on the other. The table would be set for around 20 people or more, depending on which brothers and sisters were in town. We would decorate the table with Christmas crackers and tinsel and bowls of nuts and chocolates along the length of the table. My sister-in-law made beautiful decorative little Christmas trees that would add creative charm to the table.

Everyone would arrive at around noon and share gifts with each other.  Some would have a cup of tea or coffee; others preferred cold drinks, wine or beer. Each person would add their contribution to the meal on to the sideboard, where the bowls of salads would line up under cover from the summer-time flies. Lunch would begin at around 2.30pm with the turkey and ham having been carved, and everyone helping themselves to the meat and salads. Yes, salads – the best thing for mid-summer!

With each person seated at the table, we would put on our paper hats from the Christmas crackers and open the bottles of champagne. With bubbles flowing freely, we would toast Christmas, each other and absent friends before beginning the meal. It was always loud, loads of laughter, the telling of lame Christmas-cracker jokes, the sharing of memories of Christmases gone by, more champagne and more and more and more food. Christmas pudding would make an appearance at the right time – usually flaming and filled with silver coins. I’m the only person in my family who likes Christmas pudding, but my boys always had some just for the coins!

After totally over-indulging at the table, we would all get up, find a comfy seat in which to settle and snooze, go out and laze on the lawn or a garden chair next to the pool, or go and find a bed to sleep off the meal for an hour or so. The afternoon usually flowed into an evening spent outdoors in the creeping, cooling darkness of the setting sun, splashes in the pool, cold drinks a-plenty and an endless supply of food if anyone had room for more.

Sometimes the teenagers of the family would head off to the beach for a while for a refreshing dip in the ocean. The beaches were always busy but always worth it to splash in the crashing, cooling waves of the beautiful Cape Town coastline.

At some stage, a number of us would gather in the kitchen to wash the dishes and put the food away, always accompanied by laughter and hilarity. The food would be shared out to go home again, although someone invariably ended up with lashings of turkey that would appear in various guises in meals for the next week or so! Noisy, laughter-filled farewells would take place in our driveway, as cars pulled away at the end of a perfect day.

Replete with food, love, family, laughter and sunshine, we would retire to our beds and snore before our heads hit the pillow. Although Christmas in Africa is slightly different from the northern hemisphere experience, the love, unique traditions, shared memories and joy at the significance of the celebration, transcend time and geography.

So on this winter solstice, my heart and my thoughts bask in the long day of Cape Town sun and my body shivers and freezes in the bitter cold short day of London. Technology keeps the two hemispheres together, the shrinking world makes contact with my precious family so easy, and I realise that straddling two worlds can be both tender and heartening. And I’m okay with that.

Sunshine signing off for today!

 

Childhood Christmas

Last night we went to our church carol service. It was a wonderful, cosy evening of Christmas celebration. The new gospel choir sang contemporary gospel songs, intertwined with old favourites and we sang along. Those carols transport me through years and countries to Christmases I have known and loved.

I think of my childhood in Zambia and going to a Christmas party at the sports club in Lusaka. The tall and kind-eyed clown took a keen interest in four-year-old me and kept coming over to chat to me, and ask me if I was having fun. I was always nervous of strangers and my wide eyes stared anxiously up at this plastic-nosed giant. I kind of liked him but wished he would leave me alone. It was only years later that I discovered that that clown was my Dad.

I remember being picked to be Mary in the nativity play at our church in Mazabuka. The boy I’d had a crush on was going to be Joseph; at the very moment he was picked, my crush ended. We had to walk arm-in-arm down the aisle to the awaiting nativity scene; I can’t tell you how awkward and uncomfortable I felt with the closeness of the boy I now preferred to admire from a distance.

Wherever we lived, church was our Christmas Day companion. I loved the carols but can remember longing for the singing to end so we could go home and open our presents and begin the long, exciting day of celebrations. I can remember countless “carols by candlelight” services where I hoped I would and wouldn’t set light to the brown paper bag hosting my candle.

My sons’ Christmas concerts in Cape Town were a delight. My younger son made a fleeting first appearance at his play-school concert as an angel. He walked on stage and immediately thought it better to observe from the safety of his mother’s lap, so he came down off the stage – in his white slip and silver tinsel halo – and sat on my lap for the rest of the concert.

He watched his older brother play the role of messenger, bringing scrolled news to the people of Israel. Dressed in a plastic shield and very short trousers, my older son recited his words and then began to torment the girl sitting next to him. She had a long, blonde plait and, when she stood up for her moment in the spotlight, he pulled her plait. She turned round, glared at him and made a fist at him. He giggled for the rest of the concert. So did we.

That same year, the boy playing the part of the innkeeper was quite overcome after voicing his “no room!” lines. He put both hands on his head and panted like a dog until Joseph and Mary found alternative accommodation.

When my younger son was about four years old, he asked me one Christmas evening to play the piano. We sat together on the piano stool and I asked him what he wanted me to play. “The piano, Mommy,” he said. I asked him what tune, and he said he just wanted me to play the piano. I suggested “Away in a manger”, and he nodded.

I began to play and he began to sing, at the top of his voice, “We three kings of Orientare!” He just needed accompaniment. Any accompaniment.

Snowy London town today feels a lifetime away from summer-time Christmas in Africa. I kind of love the wintry charm of Christmas in the north, but I would trade anything to celebrate this special holiday with my family. There’s always next year.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Why banking was never my bag

My father worked in the bank. As far as I know, he started out as a messenger and worked his way through the ranks to management. He retired after over 46 years of service. That’s some kind of commitment.

He never worked with technology. He poo-poo’d the idea of using an adding machine, preferring to trust his accuracy in casting the numbers manually. A bank lived and died on the quality of relationships it developed with its customers, and personal service was unquestionably its biggest asset. Customers would go into the bank to withdraw or deposit funds, would get to know the tellers and would meet with the bank manager to discuss their accounts and requests for loans or overdrafts or new accounts.

A bank manager wielded much power and my father, jokingly, would talk about meeting customers at the doorway to his office. He would welcome them, shake their hands and invite them into his office. As he took his seat, he would invite his customer to take a seat opposite him. The response would be, “Thank you, sir, but I’m quite comfortable here on my knees.”

Apart from visits to my dad’s hallowed office, I, too, enjoyed two brief forays into banking. Although I am clearly my father’s daughter, banking was never going to feature big on my horizon.

My first taste of banking was a short, holiday job I took when I was home from university. Along with a bunch of students of similar ages and persuasions, I worked for a few weeks in the musty, upstairs offices of the Bulawayo branch. I have no clue what our task was, but I do remember loads of boxes of forms and paperwork, and we had to do something with them. Watching paint dry would have been riveting in comparison.

We’d shoot the breeze as we ticked boxes – or whatever it was that we did – and we took far too many coffee breaks and watched the clock till we could take lunch, or knock off. Three weeks passed by in slow motion and, happy with the money we’d earned, we bid each other a relieved farewell.

Another holiday job presented itself during my Christmas holidays that year. The bank was hugely busy and under-staffed during the frenetic Christmas period, so they called in some extra pairs of hands. My job, strange as it was that I chose to accept it, was deposits-only teller.  With no training and some brief instruction, I took to the wooden counter like a duck to, um, treacle.

I didn’t suck at maths at school, but it was not a subject that brought me much thrill. I can do things with numbers, but I’ve never really wanted to. So taking on a job that required me to count money and balance the books with monotonous, daily regularity, seemed a bizarre way of spending half of my summer holidays. The money must have been good.

The large, gracious banking hall in Bulawayo was an architectural masterpiece from a bygone era. High ceilings, wood-panelled walls and a sweeping, wooden horseshoe of telling booths welcomed customers into the hushed heart of the bank. A security guard would guide customers to a single line where they waited for one of the tellers to become free. The telling booths were open, allowing face-to-face contact between tellers and customers. This was before the need for tellers to have reinforced, bullet-proof glass protecting them from their customers.

A second line was formed for deposits-only customers. My heart sank as the line grew daily and, as Christmas Day approached, my line dwarfed the other. It might also have been because I was slow. Heaven help me.

I had regular customers who would bring their cloth bags of loot and pour it out on to the counter: “Knock yourself out,” they would say to me. Or words to that effect.

I had one regular customer who worked in a furniture store on the next street. He would mince excitedly over to my counter every day. He would take the money out of the bag, hand it over to me, with his banking book, and then begin his daily gossip. I’m pretty good at multi-tasking but to listen and respond to gossip while I’m having to count money, record it accurately, add up all the totals and try and work out what I’m really supposed to be doing, was beyond me.

He was a delightful character, however. Always nattily dressed with hair over-styled and under-stylish, he would shift his weight from foot to foot as he trilled his long, frilly fingers together and told me what was happening behind the scenes in his store and with his customers, or where he’d partied the night before. He’d always give me an opportunity to “give the goss” from my side, but I usually looked up at him with an exasperated blank stare and wished he’d just be quiet. Fortunately he never got that I felt that way, and, once his book had been tallied and rubber-stamped, he’d twirl round and mince out of the bank like he was walking on air.

I also had regular visits from the newspaper sellers and hawkers who plied their trade on the streets outside the bank. These customers would usually have their loot tied into an old handkerchief and stored in their sock, or at least that’s the impression I got. I called those interactions the “smelly deposits”. Say no more.

One of my most embarrassing moments happened while I worked at that counter. Occasionally – like about a hundred times a day – I would need to leave my telling booth to go and ask someone what I was supposed to do in a particular situation. Or to take money to the safe. Or to fetch something. Each time I left, I’d have to make sure the bank’s rubber stamps were out of reach of the customers, retrieve my keys for the booth door and excuse myself as I went to look for some direction.

On one occasion, I did two of the three requisite things and left my booth. As I closed the door, with its Yale lock, I realised I had not taken my keys. I had just locked myself out of my booth. And I had a stranger-customer at my counter, waiting to complete his transaction. I broke into a cold sweat. I completed my enquiry mission, and then wondered how on earth I could discreetly walk into the banking hall and climb over the counter back into my booth to continue working with my customer.

For one who was not exactly a natural at telling, and who struggled most days to balance her books or do her job even vaguely well, this was a whole new challenge.

I am not the world’s greatest lateral thinker, but occasionally flashes of brilliance do cross my mind. I thought of a less embarrassing way to get back into my booth that didn’t involve pole-vaulting from the banking hall. I grabbed a chair, put it outside the back of my telling booth door, climbed up on to it and leaned up and over the top of the door – on tippy toes and probably groaning as I stretched to reach the lock – to unlock my door. I walked nonchalantly back into my booth to let my customer know what I had just found out for him.

It was difficult to maintain my dignity when I knew that the entire, busy banking hall was watching me. I tried to ignore the muffled giggles and guffaws from customers, security guards and fellow tellers. I glanced fleetingly at my watch and calculated – without the use of an adding machine – that it was only half an hour till closing time and in my mind I defied anyone to breathe one single word to me about what had just happened.

I finished with my customer and prepared to hold my breath; another customer was taking something out of his sock as he walked towards my counter.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Magic, mayhem and grass-heads at Christmas

Uncle Paul’s Christmas parties were always magical. I remember going to them when I was a child on holiday in Cape Town – way before the rindepest – and we took our boys to them when they were small.

It was an annual event that marked the beginning of Christmas festivities for us. We usually went early in December, and we always went with our dearest friends whose children were the same ages as ours. The weather was always good, the children always had fun and the enchantment of Christmas sparkled and shone under a royal blue, twinkling Cape Town sky.

Organised by local service clubs, Uncle Paul’s Christmas party is a not only a Cape Town institution but a significant fundraising event for local, deserving charities. With tickets almost as difficult to come by as Wimbledon Centre Court tickets, we’d have to book our berths early in the year, and wait in eager anticipation for the tickets to arrive, along with detailed instructions and our allocated date.

We’d arrive at the beautiful wine farm, show our tickets to the volunteers at the gate, and my husband would have to get out and hand over the carefully disguised swag from the boot of our car: a disposable container of food to contribute to the communal supper, a gift for an under-privileged child and a black bin-bag containing a gift (at a specified maximum price), labelled and chosen specially for each of our children. Our boys would keep their eyes focused ahead – they could barely contain their excitement.

We’d park our car, catch up with our friends, and join the queue for the tractor ride. Sitting on bales of hay in a trailer pulled behind a tractor, we would travel up to the bespoke castle at the top of the hill. Seating (for the adults) was arranged around a central, hay-filled area that faced the castle. We would find a place to sit and the children would jump into the hay, and begin their feast of hay-fights.

We were back-row parents. My friend and I would sit close to each other and catch up on the news and chat about everything we could think of. Our husbands would sit next to each other, share a few words here and there and laugh like drains. Such is the nature of our relationships. There was always plenty of laughter.

As soon as everyone had arrived at the castle, Noddy, Big Ears and Mr Plod would arrive and try and create order in the midst of the hayfights. This was always hilarious and over-the-top for the children, and they would try and bury the characters under the hay. The manic playtime would end with the welcome arrival of ice-creams for each child.

A marching band usually arrived after ice-creams, and the children would follow them as they marched this way and that. They would stop and play a few familiar tunes, and encourage participation from the children. By now, the light was starting to fade, and the communal supper would be passed around for all to share.

It was at this point that the Christmas carols would begin. And the laughter – from our quarter – became increasingly hysterical as our friend did his Elvis impersonation to each carol. He would sometimes liven up the songs with some hand-clapping or occasionally go reggae on us. It was hard to stay focused, but at least the children were sitting quietly in front of the band, singing as they should!

Usually the last carol to be sung was “Silent Night”, and it was at this point that the Christmas fairy would arrive. She was beautiful. She had a wand, and she would weave her magic as she lightly touched the tree and turned on the Christmas lights. The children would help with shouts of encouragement, and requisite oohs and aahs. As she was getting ready to light the star at the top of the tree, the children would be encouraged to be quiet as mice and listen; if they listened very carefully they could hear the sleigh bells in the distance. They came closer and closer, and the excitement and anticipation became almost too much to bear.

The fairy would light the star at the top of the tree and, as all little eyes were on her, Father Christmas would “land” on top of the castle. He would make his presence known, the children would look over at him and would screech and whoop and clap and jump around in excitement.

Father Christmas would come down from the top of the castle, sack on his back, and would dig into the sack to take out presents for each of the children. They would be called up in turn and, with shyness and wild excitement, the children would go up, look longingly into the eyes of this jolly man dressed in red, and receive their gifts. Paper was torn and tossed this way and that and the gifts were received with shrieks of joy.

Children would run around flashing their light sabres, wearing their neon head bands and bangles, playing with their action figures or rugby balls or toy drums (heaven help us) or toy cars and dolls. Sound effects rang through the air along with shrieks and laughter and vocal happiness.

One year, my friend had a great idea for gifts for all four of our little ones. She described them to me, and, encouraged by her enthusiasm, I agreed and went along with her. She bought the four items, wrapped them and surreptitiously passed two of them to me ahead of the Christmas party.

That was the year that all the children shrieked and laughed and showed off their gifts for all to see. Except our four children. Each of them took one look at their grass-head and came and sat quietly alongside us and watched longingly as the other children ran around and played with their cool toys. (The grass-head was a toy made out of an old stocking, filled with sand and grass seeds. The idea was that you put the grass-head on a jar filled with water, with its knotted bottom half dangling in the water. In time, the seeds would germinate and grass would begin to grow through the top of the stocking, creating a kind of long buzz cut: meet Mr Grass-head! It would be about six weeks before any “hair” appeared.)

My friend and I cast knowing looks at each other – what were we thinking? Our husbands looked at us less graciously, with expressions of WTF (why the funny-toy?), and our children sat there trying not to look ungrateful but so wishing they had cooler toys. What was Father Christmas thinking that year?

Fortunately “he” redeemed himself the next year with cool toys, and the children have long since forgiven us. It never detracted from the magic of Uncle Paul’s Christmas parties, but added a new dimension to our shared memories of those days.

Our four children still cannot figure out what we were thinking that year. I do wonder, myself, my dear dear friend: what were you we thinking?

Sunshine signing off for today!