A little Christmassy extract from ‘A Funny Kind of Education’ – the heartfelt story of our family’s learning days at home, when the girls were roughly nine and twelve:
“…With it being our third year of kids at home full time around Christmas you’d think we’d have engineered a plan for secrets. We decided we’d try honesty and appeal to their mature natures now that they were eleven and eight.
“Your dad and I are just going upstairs for a while and it’s important you don’t disturb us. Have you got things to do?”
“What for?” There was a little twinkle in Chelsea’s eye as she asked which reminded me distinctly of mum.
“It’s a secret,” I said smiling.
“A Christmas secret?” asked Charley also grinning now and knowing exactly what we were up to.
“Maybe,” said their dad. He tried to be mysterious but the girls are too clever for him. “So you won’t disturb us, will you?”
“Maybe!” returned Chelsea copying him and Charley smirked.
We went upstairs and de-hid all their presents from our various drawers.
“Do you think they’ll disturb us?” said Charles, cutting paper on the slant and wrestling to find the end of the sticky tape.
“I don’t think so, but look, we’ll turn back the bedcovers then if they come up whilst we’re wrapping we’ll throw the duvet over everything.” You have to be inventive when you’re a Home Educator.
“Do you remember doing this when they were at school,” I said.
“Yea, life was easy then,” he said grinning and spitting sticky tape from between his teeth.
“What? You think tears and illness every day were easy?” We laughed. I wrapped. He stuck. If he was in charge of the wrapping all the presents would look like parcels of fish and chips.
“No, it was awful. I can’t believe we’ve done this as long as we have. It just seems so ordinary now. You should hear the others at work going on about homework and packed lunches and stuff. Not to mention Christmas concert practises. They’re complaining the kids aren’t getting on with their learning” He stuck my finger to the parcel.
I extricated it and reached for some ribbon.
“I can imagine. Do they say anything about ours then?”
“Only how they can see why we do it.” He put his massive thumb on the delicate bow I created, squishing it. I tied his thumb down.
“Not enough for them to have a go though!” I laughed. Then the stairs creaked. Charles leapt off the bed, smacked his head on the sloping ceiling but still managed to toss the duvet over the presents as I stuffed the paper under the bed. We sat there and listened. Sniggering was coming from the landing.
“Go away,” Charles called.
“We’re not coming in, we’re only going to our rooms.” The giggling got fainter. We exchanged looks. Charles sneaked a peek through a crack in the old planked door.
“What they doing?” I whispered.
“They’ve gone into their bedrooms but their doors are open.”
“Let’s carry on. I don’t think they’ll come in. They wouldn’t want to spoil their Christmas surprises. Besides, I think Chelsea’s becoming aware of other things that go on in bedrooms!”
Charles raised his eyebrows in glee. “In that case, perhaps we should make good use of it.”
“What? You think you could enjoy sex with giggling going on at the bedroom door and creaking floorboards?” We laughed like naughty kids but continued wrapping.
“What you laughing at?” came from right outside the door. We bundled the duvet back over everything once more.
“Never you mind. Go back downstairs,” I shouted. I crept over and peeped to see if there was any peeping coming from the other side the crack. None.
“Come on, let’s get it done before they come up again.” The rest were wrapped in haste and I fear my parcels looked like fish and chips too.
Charley looked shocked and uncomfortable. Her face was full of both thunder and distress and very red. Her eyes looked like they were going to fill up any minute. She turned her head away and would not look at Charles or me either.
Chelsea just folded her arms across her chest, adopted her most disdainful position and stated emphatically “If anyone asks; you are not my dad.”
Charles couldn’t help it. All the staff were told to dress up for the Christmas market for charity but the girls weren’t impressed. And Charley absolutely hated anyone dressed up in costume. I got a bit of a shock myself seeing this large rotund red fellow with two cushions up his jacket and his face adorned with a mass of flowing white stuff. It’s very off-putting seeing someone who you are as familiar with as your own body parts taking on another persona. He was sweating so much the bits of his face you could see were authentically shining as Santa’s does in all the pictures. It did the trick. A good crowd had gathered at the store and money was being thrown continually in the charity bucket.
“God, I keep losing my trousers,” he said grabbing a handful of red bottom and hoisting it up. I couldn’t help laughing.
“I knew you’d laugh,” he said.
“Sorry, I’m not laughing at you, it’s just your trousers.” I tried to help. But grappling with Santa’s trousers seemed even funnier. Obviously everyone else thought so too as two more pounds went in the bucket. It’s not every day people see Santa being groped.
“Do you have to behave like that?” demanded Chelsea, standing holding Charley’s hand a little bit distant whilst we tried to control our hysteria. She still wouldn’t look at him.
“Have a sweetie,” said Charles holding out the bucket to her.
“It’s only a bit of fun,” I said.
“You look stupid.”
I didn’t care, I was in the Christmas spirit. I had a quick snog with Santa and left him to his collecting.
“We’ll go look round the Christmas Market. See you later.”
“Okay. See you later girls.” They ignored him and pulled me away. But Chelsea called back over her shoulder.
“Save us some sweeties, dad.”
We bought a few Christmas presents and then had to get some new wellies for Chelsea. Charley just got the hand-me-downs but she was still at the stage where anything of Chelsea’s was revered. Wellies had taken on a new persona of their own in the shops. They were more pictorial than the efforts we see in the Tate Modern and a hell of a price. I refused to be ripped off, plus the fact we had tight budgets. But Chelsea ogled the bright ones wistfully.
“I’m sorry darling, these will have to do. The others are just too expensive,” I said picking up the plain green ones, the cheapest we could find. I felt a bit wretched about this. In order to Home Educate, time isn’t the only thing we sacrifice and all I ever seem to say is ‘we can’t afford it’. But she’s so intuitive she must have picked up on it.
“It doesn’t matter mum. I’ll paint my own with the paints we got from the recycling centre.”
I was so grateful for her magnitude I cuddled her up. “What a brilliant idea! And I bet they’ll be better than any in the shops.”
“Yea, and no one else will have any the same,” she said looking at a girl wearing some we’d just seen in Woolworths.
“Can I paint mine too?” asked Charley.
“Sure. We’ll have a wellie painting session. We could even paint your dad’s,” I said winking at them. They really liked that idea.
When we went back later Charles looked his normal self again. He opened his arms to Charley and she leapt into them with clear relief. Chelsea lobbed her arms round his waist.
“Is that better now?” he asked carrying Charley to the car. She inspected him slightly doubtfully. Chelsea smiled happily up at him holding the free hand.
“You did look daft, dad,” she giggled.
“Did you remember the sweets?” asked Charley.
He put her down and produced a packet from his pocket. Finally Charley grinned at him too. It was definitely better now.
“Mum! You can’t go out like that,” Chelsea said as I tied tinsel on my shoes ready for a Christmas party.
“Why not? It’s Christmas isn’t it.” I looked at her in feigned indignation. She’d got that suffering look on again.
“Doh! What do you look like?” She was getting to be a right Tweenager.
“I think you look nice,” said Charley clasping my leg in a cuddle from the carpet where she was building a structure with our logs.
“Well at least put some lipstick on,” said Chelsea still trying to make something out of me. She rummaged in a make up bag so extensive it would be the envy of Julian Clary. “How about this?” She produced something nearly black.
“Black?” I shrieked. “It’s Christmas, not Halloween.”
“It’s not black, it’s plum.”
“I’ll have some,” said Charley hopefully. She was ignored. I sneaked a look in the bag of sticky powdery tubs and jars and pencils. It staggered me how she loved it so, I wasn’t into it at all. But I humoured her and found a jar of lovely sparkly glittery gluey stuff with sequin stars in.
“Ooo, this is nice.” I opened the pot and smeared some across my chest. It made grubby stains as if I hadn’t washed for a week. “Oh!” I looked in the mirror, disappointed.
“Oh, mum, not like that.” Chelsea took over and I had the sense our mother and daughter roles were reversing. She wiped it about and the smudges disappeared leaving a myriad of glistening sparkles. Then she added the sequins.
“Can I have some?” asked Charley again, thinking her sister had softened her attitude.
“No!” was the emphatic retort.
“Can I have some then?” asked Charles.
“NO!” they both shrieked together. And give us their parents-are-prats look.
We finished getting ready.
“So do we look alright now?” I asked.
“Yes.” They smile united. But I couldn’t help a last word.
“You know it’s not how you look, it’s what’s inside that counts.”
“Yes, we know!”
They know too much, my kids.
Christmas continued sparkly all the way through.
The best thing about it was the painted wellies. They were works of art fit for exhibiting in The Tate themselves, with swirls and colours and rainbows. If I’d bought the coloured ones we never would have had such creativity. Being on a tight budget certainly makes you think creatively so maybe I shouldn’t worry after all. Charley painted gold stars on hers. But she painted straight over the mud so the stars had a brown tinge.
Charles and I used the ‘holiday’ from education to ignore the children and just live life. But it didn’t work. We didn’t want it to really. We were a family, we were a team. Life and education were as indistinguishable from one another as our family and love. I suspected it always would be.”