My first Christmas in the UK ended up being a surreal event. I worked as a nanny in Muswell Hill at the time (book plug number one: the story of my nannying days features in the book), but my employers made it crystal clear that they expected me to make myself scarce from Christmas Eve until the New Year, so as not to spoil their picture-perfect family festivities with my strong Eastern European accent, my ghastly jumble sale clothing range and my general foreign weirdness.
My options were limited. Most of my Polish friends from Poland went back to Poland for Christmas, which I didn’t want to risk, as there was no guarantee I would be allowed back into the UK in January, or, to be more accurate, I knew that there was precisely zero chance of me returning to the UK in January, because I would have needed to secure another invitation, make a few trips to the British Consulate in Warsaw and convince the consulate worker that although I had overstayed the previous 6 months visa, I had no intention of overstaying again. (book plug number 2: I describe the whole process in detail in the book). So no, I wasn’t going back to Poland for Christmas. My friends from Westminster Cathedral Young Catholics group (you guessed it, book plug number 3, I write about them in the book), liked me well enough as an occasional badminton partner, but not sufficiently to invite me to spend Christmas with their families.
York University Natives came to my rescue once more (final book plug: York Natives feature in the book, naturally). One of them, Helen, charitably arranged for me to stay with her boyfriend’s sister’s American boyfriend at an… American army base, somewhere in Kent. She apologised for not being able to invite me to her parents’ house, as her family relations were strained enough without bringing an awkward, socially inept me into the equation. She didn’t say any of it aloud, the tactful person as she was. I cannot remember the exact location of the barracks, and I didn’t think it necessary to jot it down in my 1988 diary, so the name of the place is now forever lost to me in the murky clouds of time. It might have been Surrey, or one of the Sussexes.
The accommodation was depressingly bare and basic. Every room was packed with a mix of Americans and the rest of us, a gathering of misfits and lost souls that somebody took pity on. Christmas Day was spent trying to cook an enormous turkey in the comically small oven, and then carving it with an electric saw. Apart from the badly undercooked turkey, the food offering was markedly modest. Somebody had an idea to baste the worryingly pale looking bird in peanut butter and jelly (what else).
There was a lot of religion throughout the day. We celebrated the birth of Baby Jesus as if it were the one and only time He was going to be born in our lifetime.
As it turned out, Helen’s boyfriend’s sister’s American boyfriend’s girlfriend was expecting him to propose to her on Christmas Day. When the boyfriend got drunk beyond salvation and fell asleep by 5pm, his girlfriend became morose beyond reason. The last droplets of Christmas spirit, if ever there was any to begin with, evaporated quietly into the cold damp air around the barracks.
The moment I saw Helen’s car pull over outside on Boxing Day morning to take me away from the Kent or Surrey barracks, remains one of the happiest memories of my life, despite the fact that I have been rather spoilt in my choice of happy memories ever since.