The Christmas party had been sillier than usual, and I felt some satisfaction that it would be my last. In September Joe and I'd come to the parting of the ways, at least temporarily, as he strode off with all the confidence in the world to the school on the hill.
You could see Ancrum Road Primary School if you stood on the wall outside St Mary'sCatholic Church where the High Street became the Lochee Road. I had no idea what Alcatraz was then, but if I had, I would certainly have named that institution of junior learning 'Alcatraz on the Hill'.
Party hats, home-made, crackers, home-made, and lumpy jelly, home-made, whistles, clackers, rattles, xylophones, tin drums, and abortive attempts at carol singing accompanied by the up-right,out-of-tune piano produced scenes of frenzied, frantic mayhem across the main hall of the nursery. Snowballs sneaked in under pinafores had reduced the wooden floor to a soggy, slippery mess, unimproved by the urine of several little girls taken short by the excitement of it all. The tree tipped over at an unlikely angle, bulbs exploding at the rate of one every five minutes, chocolate novelties longsince ripped off, and the fairy looking as bedraggled as the nurses who fought half-heartedly for control of their pinafored charges.
All other doors were locked against us, including, outrageously, the door to the Quiet Room where I could have found solace in a Wizard or Hotspur, or even in these desperate circumstances a Dandy or Beano though my contempt for Dennis the Menace and Desperate Danwere legendary. Little surprise then that my participation in the Hokey Cokey ended after I'd three times put the boot, or at least the sandal into three toddlers who had the temerity to shake their limbs at me. Thrown across the room, I slid arse-first into the Christmas tree and was rewarded by the sound of three bulbs exploding simultaneously and the fairy falling into my lap. I would have leftthere and then, but the presents were still to come.
"Ho ho ho!"
If the voice hadn't given it away, the streaky moustache and the gin-tainted breath did. Santa was Matron. Santa was always Matron, I hadn't needed Joe to tell me that. But was I the only one who recognised her? The others, even my fellow five-year-olds screeched in delight and were only hindered from mauling Santa by the serriedranks of nurses who secured her path to the Christmas tree where Santa, as God is my witness, kicked me out of her way.
Santa's armchair was hauled into place. She dropped her Christmas sack with a thud and dropped herself into the chair which sagged beneath her not inconsiderable bulk, none of which was made up of pillows.
"Line up. Sparrows first. Then seagulls. Now you blackbirds, andthen the tits." Nurses smiled, screamed and herded us into some semblance of order. I was four years old and therefore a tit. At the time I did not understood why mum laughed when I told her.
In the prescribed order infants, toddlers and juniors mounted Matron, were breathed upon, exchanged whispers, and given their Christmas present. They scrambled down and were led away by nurses who thenman-handled the presents from them and piled them on a table near the door. As usual we were not to be allowed to open our presents until going-home time; previous experiments at letting the children open their presents had led to jealousy, bickering, arguments, fighting and worse. All of the infants, most of the toddlers and several of the juniors burst into inconsolable tears, not that anyone tried toconsole them, the piano just got louder.
My turn came. I looked up into Matron's eyes. Little black raisins embedded in a purple pudding. I wanted to put a match to her. Did gin burn like brandy? Never mind. That ratty beard would do.
"Get up here, Paul."
"My mother says you have to call me Jean-Paul."
"Get up here, Jean-Paul." I could feel the hostility, the gin must be wearing off....