Ghosts of Christmas Past

 

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The Bon Marche in Brixton UK

In London, in the 50s, there was a department store called the Bon Marche. As the name suggests, it was French in origin, and much more upmarket than Woolworths or Marks and Spencer. It tried hard to be Harrods, and had as dedicated a clientele, including my mother, who could never quite bring herself to walk past it. No matter how urgent the errand, I would find my hand being grabbed and hauled into the store.

It was a real department store, with lifts going up to several floors, and a cafeteria, and atChristmas it became a sparkling palace. The windows showed snowy scenes of Victorian splendour and inside, the bite of winter gave way to lush warmth and glittering lights and tinsel. Mum always took me to see Santa in his grotto with the elves and a magnificent real fir tree, decorated with baubles and a star on top- but first, without fail, she would head for the perfume aisle.

She would try on the most expensive French perfumes, and sweep into Santa’s grotto smelling of Chanel No 5, but when it came to presents she always asked for Tweed, a plain name but a reasonably priced scent that she found both elegant and sophisticated – the highest praise she could bestow on a perfume. I knew it was her signature scent even before I knew what a signature scent was, because whenever anyone caught a whiff of it they thought of my mother.

I preferred the Coty range – L’Aimant, Emeraude – beautiful, evocative names and scents I dreamed of wearing when I grew up. My first gifted bottle for Christmas was Bourjois’ Evening in Paris, which my father rather unkindly referred to as le cat’s pee. I thought it was wonderful, with its beautifully shaped bottle and gorgeous Christmas packaging. But many years later I received a bottle of L’Aire du Temps, and I understood what he meant.

In those days, of course, perfume was the gift for women at Christmas. If, like my mother, you had a signature scent, that’s what you got year after year. Kids’ gifts were similarly predictable. I got books, jigsaws, drawing materials, games, and stuffed toys. I had it on absolutely reliable authority from other kids that Santa never brought you books. Mothers were always responsible for the books. But I had figured out that there was no Santa at a young age, when I woke up one Christmas morning and eagerly unwrapped my presents to find old shoes, empty boxes and a tin of sardines. The next year all I found was a scrap of paper, the first in a series of clues leading to my hidden presents. Yes, I had a troll dad.

So I knew the Santa at the Bon Marche grotto wasn’t the real thing but it didn’t matter. There was always magic there, holding mother’s hand, and looking at the beautifully presented gift boxes of Tweed while she deliberated over which one I should tell dad to buy her for Christmas, while she dabbed on the Chanel No 5 that he could never afford.