Our Christmas always began in the afternoon on Christmas Eve.
Mum would roll up her sleeves, clear the old ashes, re-lay and light the fire under the brick boiler in the corner of the scullery and fill it up with buckets of cold water. She would fetch out towels and clean undies and nightclothes, drape them over the fireguard in front of the range in the kitchen, and fetch in an extra bucket of coal to keep the fires stoked up.
Shortly before Dad was due home from work, the boiler would be bubbling gently and she would put the kettle and three big saucepans on the gas stove. Then, with a lot of clanging and swearing, in would come the tin bath that hung on the wall by the outside lavatory.
Laying newspapers on the floor and with cries of, ‘Keep out of me way, I don’t want you getting scalded and ending up in hospital for Christmas,’ mum would come in with a bucket of boiling hot water and tip it in the bath followed with a couple of buckets of cold and then mum would test the water with her elbow, because Elaine my little sister was the first to go in.
The bath was topped up with more hotters for me and then while we were still wrapped in towels, mum would get in and we’d help her wash her long, black hair with Eve Shampoo. During the year she used Vaseline shampoo, but the more expensive Eve had a picture of a woman with long dark hair on the front. The powder inside both brands looked and smelled the same so it was probably only our imagination or the glamour of the packaging that mum’s hair, which was also black and long had an extra sheen when she used it.
As a special treat and then only if she could afford it, every year at Christmas mum would buy a bar of scented soap with two matching bath cubes and a tin of talcum powder. White Fire, which came wrapped in red cellophane was our favourite, and as each of us got in the bath, mum would drop in half a cube.
Dad used to get in last, and used to say it was a good job he wouldn’t be leaving the house anymore for a couple of days, because he smelled like a woman of ill repute.
Rubbed down with warm towels, sprinkled lavishly with talc, and in our clean nightie or pyjamas, we couldn’t wait to put our stocking and pillowcase on the bottom of the bed, snuggle down with a hot water bottle under the clean sheets mum had put on our beds that morning, and wait for Father Christmas to come.
And although it was a very long time ago, every Christmas Eve as I stand in the shower, I slip back in time for a few moments and conjure up the combined smells of clean sheets, coal fires, airing clothes and clouds of White Fire scented steam…