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My neighbour’s miserable Christmas

Hearing about her experience I made an instant resolution

By on Monday, 3 January 2011

My elderly mother has come to live in a little row of terraced houses three minutes from where I live, so that I can keep an eye on her. This is a polite fiction, sustained by both of us to keep up appearances; in reality, aged 87 and with short-term memory loss, she needs care. Hey presto! Daughter appears on stage.

This blog is not actually about my mother. I mention her because in the course of tripping back and forth a few times a day on filial duties I have to pass one of the other terrace houses two doors from where she lives. On Boxing Day, on one of my expeditions, I happened to bump into its occupant: a lady of indeterminate age and indeterminate dress, the sort of person you might sit next to on a bus and not recall anything about them.

Bumping into someone who is almost a neighbour prompts a greeting, so I say “Happy Christmas!” in a feeble imitation of Bob Cratchit. I am corrected. “It was not a happy Christmas,” replies the lady in question, no longer quite so indeterminate. “It was a horrible one,” she adds for emphasis.

“I am sorry to hear that,” I say in the faux-sympathetic style a GP who has just been treated to a catalogue of his patient’s aches and pains. The lady continues: “I was on my own the whole day yesterday. I felt so desperate I phoned the Salvation Army as I thought they cared about people like me – and even they didn’t get back to me.”

I stared, stricken. A few doors from my house which was bursting at its seams, strewn with discarded crackers, and where my mother, a paper hat askew on her white hair and a glass of wine in her hand, was making toast after toast, there was a woman sitting on her own the whole of Christmas Day without a single visitor.

This is not the Good News that Jesus came down to earth to proclaim. It is very bad news. I make an instant end of the year resolution; after all, what is the point of calling yourself a Christian if – ? If, indeed. Later in the day I called on the lady. She was out so I peeped through her kitchen window: bare of all but basic cooking units. Then I peeped through her letter box: a passageway bare of any signs of human life. Then I rang the bell and an aged dog of indeterminate breed came slowly limping down the passage, wagging its tail. Thank God for pets, I think. At least she had her dog for company on Christmas Day.

I left a card (having checked that its message wasn’t “Happy Christmas!”) and called back this afternoon. The lady was at home, wearing a dressing gown and slippers. Now I know her name is Janet and that her dog, which is blind and only has three legs, is called “Babe”. I asked her if she wanted to come round for a glass of mulled wine (what else can you do with cheap plonk, after all?) by the fire. She said she wasn’t dressed – but would I like to call round on a morning at hers for a cup of tea? It had to be a morning as her anti-depressants kicked in during the afternoon and she went to bed early. I accepted.

Happy New Year everyone.

  • EditorCT

    What a wonderful story! Wonderful, in that you, Francis, are representative of most if not all of us, who get so caught up with our families at Christmas, that we don't think about people like Janet who might be, unwillingly, on their own. I say “unwillingly” because there are people who like to be on their own, even at Christmas. And how kind of you to go back to see Janet and to agree to visit for a cuppa. That's beautiful and you are to be warmly commended for your charity. I wonder, too, if it might be worth tipping of the other neighbours – after all, you've written about your daughter who needs care and now your mother – perhaps give others the opportunity to exercise practical charity. Like you, they probably don't know about Janet's loneliness and would appreciate knowing that they might help alleviate it somewhat.

    Personally, I'd love to be on my own at Christmas – if only! The peace and quiet of it. The chocolates I wouldn't have to share! But don't tell my family!

  • Kyriakos

    Good Francis.Hope you continue your Christmas charity towards Janet even after the Christmas season.After all Christmas is not only from the 25 December till Epiphany.

  • Jeanmercier Lavie

    Very moving indeed.

  • Anonymous

    A Christmas Carol