Gaynor Beesley: Parma Violets

Gaynor Beesley with Rudolph in the garden of the family home in Ettingshall Park, Wolverhampton, Christmas Day, 1966

I was still naive enough to believe in fairy stories. St John’s Methodists, desperate for a new roof, had somehow persuaded Santa and his sleigh onto the back of a carnival float — quite a coup. Tonight he had agreed a preliminary fact-finding visit to the kids on our estate.

Summoned by a smart rap on the letterbox, dads the length of the street heaved out of armchairs and absent-mindedly tapped their back pockets. It was Christmas, and there was a ban on overtime so loose change was becoming an issue. Still, abandoning Midlands Today, they committed to the seasonal zeitgeist and shuffled after their progeny into the chilly dark.

This was to be my first supernatural encounter. I capered on the footpath as Santa’s sleigh juddered towards us, shrouded in an ethereal cloud of diesel fumes. I took in the weight of the pageantry; fairy lights were plentiful, a tinny rendition of Jingle Bells issued from the bowels of the lorry.

“Where’s the reindeer?”

“ ‘avin’ a rest.”

Fair enough, you have to consider the reindeer. Dad had a word with a disembodied presence in the cab of the lorry and cash changed hands before, dispensing with gravitas, he dumped me onto the back of the float. I wobbled awkwardly on Santa’s knee. A forthright appraisal seemed inappropriate but his breath reeked of cigarettes and stale coffee. He initiated the expected conversation regarding my behaviour which, I felt, had improved since his last visit. Placated, Santa settled the half-moon specs which had been creeping forward towards the tip of his nose throughout our brief exchange.

“So, what yoe want for Christmas then?”

“A reindeer, please.”

He appeared nonplussed, “A reindeer? Righto, I’ll ‘ave t’ see what I cun do.”

My cheeks burned with triumph as Santa delved into his cloth bag and handed me a tiny packet to seal our deal. Planted back on solid ground I opened my palm to reveal a crisp, cellophane wrap of Parma Violets. More chalky lilac than violet, they looked like Nana’s indigestion pills. I pushed my thumb nail along the seal and was assaulted by the smell of old ladies’ handbags, that pungent cocktail of mothballs and face powder. I steeled my resolve and optimistically popped one in my mouth.

It was good… no, not really…not sure…I’d better try another one. The second hit the back of my throat like a waft of Zoflora disinfectant. It was sweet, inconceivably for a three-year-old, too sweet. I felt sick, so I gave the rest to the big boy from three doors down. Less discerning than me, he gaped like I was a form of exotic vegetable before snatching them without comment. I watched him teeter off along the edge of the kerb towards his front door, the booty poking rakishly out of the waistband of his school trousers. A pang of doubt coloured my image of the reindeer grazing contentedly on Dad’s back lawn.

“If Santa knows everything, then why did he give me Parma Violets?”

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