It was the first time I’d seen them dance like that; together. Proper bopping. Careless, out of time. Music surging from the television, the room overflowing with Christmas: fairy lights, discarded wrapping paper and two elderly ladies throwing their bodies around the drum beat. I’m nine; the ladies in question are Grandma Mac and my Great-Grandma B. Various members of my family are draped over the furniture and scattered across the floor; giggling and egging the dancers into an arm-raised, skirt flapping, bosom bouncing, frenzy. They’re rocking in the jungle. Curls struggle to escape the strangle-hold of their perms. Jungle, jungle, jungle, jungle rock. Jen and I bob our heads side-by-side. Our younger brother Mark has already tuned out, bewitched instead by the primary-coloured explosion of Meccano at his feet.
Red button pushed down, I record the events on my new cassette recorder. Years later, I will unearth the tape whilst sorting through my things before leaving for university. I’ll play it back for my mum; we’ll sit on the floor with the tape player between us, time-travelling on the back of great-grandma’s familiar Yorkshire accent and throaty laugh.
This is the first Christmas I remember with any clarity. It is, and will remain, my favourite time of year; time for family and, for almost 40 years, I’ll be able to count on one hand the number of Christmas Days spent away from home. Of those …
In my twenties I’ll camp out on the floor at my newly-wedded sister’s; drinking cough mixture from the bottle to stem the wracking of my chest, my hankie heavy with luminous green snot.
My thirties will bring a veto on festivities in a cottage on the Fife coast to comfort my widowed best friend; we’ll eat roasted vegetables and walk along the beach until the wind takes the last of my breath and I’ll be brought to my knees, begging for it back.
And a couple of years later, I’ll swap seasonal slush for sunshine and fly to the other side of the world to be with my brother and his wife in their Melbourne home. On Christmas Eve we’ll eat dinner in a restaurant in the bohemian part of town, on the way back from which, giddy on champagne, my sister-in-law will join me in the back seat of the car and Mark will chauffer us through the temperate suburban streets whilst we hic our way through a song on the radio: And I-I-I will fix you! Not for the first time, my heart will race out of rhythm. I won’t mention it. The following morning I’ll wake up to more champagne for breakfast. There’ll be traditional turkey dinner, eaten at the table, doors and windows thrown open to welcome in the sun. The wake of a warm shower will fill the air with the earthy tones of wet soil, overlaid with ripened tomatoes and a cocktail of herbs. I-I-I will fix you.
Talk (4 mins approx.) – The rest of my life is in the gaps between Christmas: watching report on first successful heart transplant on TV to diagnosis of heart condition; interim years; brief overview; Paul; the list.
When I meet Paul, I don’t know any of this. I don’t know that we’ll celebrate the second anniversary of our first kiss in hospital, watching a DVD, tinsel wrapped round my drip stand. Nor do I know that the following morning, Christmas Day of my 46th year, I’ll be woken by a nurse stroking my arm and in a low voice, telling me she’s there to take blood. All of my grandparents will be dead, Mark will still be on the other side of the world and Jen and her family will be in a hotel close to our parents.
‘Is it really now?’ I’ll say, voice blunted by sleep, the feel of my tongue large in my parched mouth. The nurse will turn to me and smile.
In the hour of calm that follows, before all the phone calls to my family, before Paul arrives from the hotel to hold my hand, before the scrubbing and showering and blood-letting and paper pants, before the consent form and the word M-O-R-T-A-L-I-T-Y, before the handshake and the transplant fellow, before the hugs from the nurses and the surgeon’s reassuring squeeze of my shoulder, before the co-ordinator and the corridors and the theatre door, before the kind faces of the theatre staff and white masks and green scrubs and injections and cannulas and iodine and anaesthetic, before they saw through my breast bone, hinge it open and cut out my heart: before that. Before that. Before all of that; I’ll close my eyes and dance with my grandmas to the Jungle Rock.