In theory it sounds like a thirtysomething’s worst nightmare (Crimbo at home alone with mum and dad), but Alison Taylor wouldn’t have it any other way.
Christmas at the parental home is like family life in HD, or buying a DVD with ‘special features’: you get the main story, but then a load of fun extra bits, too, including the out-takes where people mess up. That’s how it is for me, anyway. But I am a bit different: my name is Alison Taylor and I like going home for Christmas.
It plays out a little like this: I get on a train from King’s Cross a few days before The Big Day, usually deeply hungover (occasionally having had no sleep). I arrive at Wakefield Westgate, where my parents will be standing on the platform, togged up in their winter coats, excitedly scanning the train for some sign of me. We’ll discuss my inability to travel light while Dad takes my multiple bags in his hands, his wrists swollen with arthritis. And when he’s walking ahead of me, laden with my luggage, it’s a shot-to-the-heart reminder of the fact he’s getting old. Like old old, which, frankly, terrifies me. Then we’ll go for a drink and Dad and I will have a smoke outside (him: pipe, me: rollies). We’ll pick up cheese and ‘fancy foods’ (as Mum calls them) from Morrisons – stuff that I like but they never touch: pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, amaretto.
We’ll arrive home at their three-bedroom-corner-semi-with-conservatory in a small village outside Huddersfield and admire the wacky decorations – Christmas wreaths, LED Christmas tree, tinsel strung everywhere like a Jackson Pollock, cards stuck all over the kitchen cupboards, and what can only be described as sinister Santa and snowman ornaments with squashy legs dangling over the sideboard. I’ll throw myself dramatically onto the settee, grab the remote and breathe in a giant gulp of contentment. ‘Do you want a cup of tea, love?’ asks Mum. Do I ever?!
You see, unlike a lot of people (friends and contemporaries included), I love going home for Christmas. And not only do I love my mum and dad, but I really, really like them, too. I can’t think of anyone better to laugh at the TV with, have a pint with, go shopping with, confide in, and so it goes on. Perhaps it would be different if I had a significant other, but I’ve been single for the best part of seven years and, at 35, I’ve seen our relationship really come into its own over the past decade. Emotionally, I rely on my parents more now than I ever did in my twenties. We talk every day on the phone, sometimes more than once a day (Dad always puts me on loudspeaker, whatever drivel I’m spouting). They’re like my soul mates: the ultimate until-death-do-us-part relationship in lieu of a marriage of my own.
But the family-life-in-HD experience works only if, like me, you don’t mind seeing each other’s flaws close up; seeing everything played out in the open. I like to be honest with Mum and Dad about my lifestyle – my fears and disappointments – and I’m pretty sure they like it that way. I don’t hide who I am from them to keep up any pretence of perfection. They know who I really am and accept that, like many thirtysomethings today, I’m showing little sign of growing up in the way their generation did.
‘Why are you still being sick after a night out?’ was Mum’s question on the morning after my 35th-birthday shindig, as we got into the car to go to the first birthday party of my best friend’s daughter. I was nursing a sick bag on my lap; I don’t know if that’s funny or tragic (I’m not massively proud of it), but it’s a sign of the times. My generation is so much more reluctant to behave like grown-ups. I’ll be honest – I’m still absolutely terrified of becoming boring, settled or conventional.
Recently, when Mum and Dad came to stay with me in my new flat (that they helped me buy) in London, they arrived cheerfully bearing a new doormat, shower curtain and home-made pies. But they found me still up from the night before and pretty upset about a recent crash-and-burn with a guy, so I ’fessed up to them and explained exactly why I hadn’t been to bed. What followed was a totally frank conversation about illicit substances, a few tears (me, not them), and then a perfect evening in front of the telly eating takeaway curry. Total. Comfort. My parents didn’t tell me off, or judge me at all. And yet, I recognised that in confessing my sins, I was able to hold a mirror up to myself and look at the things about my life I wanted to change. The truth is, I’d love to have a ‘significant other’ and a noisy house full of children one day, like my older brother James, whose life couldn’t be more different from mine. He’s 39, has an office job, lives just three miles from my parents and is expecting his third child in December. He’ll be spending Christmas with his girlfriend’s family, as usual. And I will be his ‘go-to’ person for a sneaky festive pint if he needs to escape the brood.
Yet, believe it or not, I’m not forced to wear silly sweaters and suffer a grilling about why I can’t hold down a man à la Bridget Jones. My parents know I can’t hold down a man – they know all too well, because I moan about it all the time. But I’m lucky that the societal stranglehold that prefers women in relationships rather than single is not imposed in the comfort of my parental home. Crucially, when I did have a boyfriend – ie supposedly winning at life – and he was part of a precious family Christmas, I had the most miserable time of my life. I’ll never forget quietly crying on the couch downstairs at 3am on Boxing Day, having left him sulking in bed after another horrid day of hushed arguments. We broke up in the January. Having brought him into my ‘safe place’ felt like sacrilege.
So, as usual, this Christmas Eve, Dad and I will go into town to do last-minute shopping. In other words, get his surprise present to Mum in addition to the nightdress she’s already bought herself as if from him and wrapped up (I know, mental behaviour). Then, we’ll have a drink in what can only be described as a scary town-centre pub near the bus station. ‘It’s good beer,’ Dad says. It’s also cheap and, frankly, I don’t care where I have a pint and a chat with him. Dad’s not big on words, but just being with him, and him saying that everything will be OK, is always enough.
It’s all a far cry from the latest pop-up bar my colleagues in London might be talking about. And thank God. I don’t come home for that. I like the change of pace, and I fit in, too, despite the fact I will sometimes be (affectionately) called ‘posh’ by the lads from my old school and, inevitably, I’ll be asked again if I’ve got a man yet, or kids.
This Christmas, I’ll shake my head again to both questions, but I will also focus on what I do have: amazing parents who accept me as I am, who will be waiting with open arms on a bleak Northern railway platform, ready to eat turkey, drink sherry and be merry. Best. Gift. Ever.
Alison Taylor is the author of The Still Single Papers (£7.99, Mainstream), available at Amazon