My neighbour’s miserable Christmas

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.