The Christmas lights are strung high across Regent Street. Carnaby Street is a feast of butterflies hung high across the street and fluttering in the breeze. Christmas, it seems has returned to London. The streets are packed with people from all over the world, as though nothing has happened over the past two years.
I’m in London Christmas shopping with a girlfriend. It’s the first time that I have been back for over three years. Nothing has changed and yet everything has changed. The buses have changed shape and glide silently by. The taxis, once so elusive, are in abundance despite the astronomical charges that clock up in front of your eyes. The pedestrian crossings have been painted in the colours of rainbows. The shops windows are still festooned with pumpkins, witches, spiders and cob webs. Next week the witches will have been driven away and replaced with singing and dancing Santa Claus’s.
It’s raining so we hop a taxi from the hotel down to Marlborough Street off Regents Street. Marks and Spencers is our first stop – I want to see if one of the bigger stores has a jumper I have been looking for. I find it. At the checkout the girl says, “You need a hanger.” I say, no I don’t need a hanger, I have plenty at home. “No,” she says, “You must get a hanger. Go to the front of the store and you’ll be given one.” Has London changed that much I ask myself? Since when did I need to have a hanger to purchase a jumper? Am I completely misunderstanding this girl? Clearly, she isn’t going to take my money unless I have a hanger. Feeling thoroughly annoyed I do as I am told. Outside the store, someone is handing out hangers, paper hangers. They are lucky hangers – I might ‘win’ 10% or 20% of my purchases today or I might even win a star prize of £500. All I have to do is exchange my paper hanger for a voucher. My voucher gives me 20% off! I return to the checkout. The girl is smiling. I am smiling. Many would have happily taken my money without a hanger, but she didn’t. My day is off to a really good start. I have her to thank for it.
We sit outside Starbucks in Carnaby Street for a coffee and a muffin. It’s raining. Juggling a coffee and eating a muffin while holding an umbrella up is quite an art.
Next stop is Liberty’s just a few yards away. I always go into Liberty’s before Christmas. At least when I am able to get to London. My purchase is always the same – a meter of Liberty’s lawn. My mother loves bright colours and loves the feel of Liberty’s lawn. It lasts forever. I make her eight handkerchiefs out of one meter of fabric. It costs me four pounds per handkerchief. If I buy them ready made in Liberty’s, they are seventeen pounds (or more) each. I was taught the value of money. Hand sewn, the set of eight are pressed, pinned, and enveloped in cellophane. I’ve done it for the past fifteen years. This year I don’t go to the fabric department. There is no reason. Mum passed away in August this year. There’s a hole in my heart, a hole in Christmas. I potter aimlessly around Liberty’s looking out for small things that she might like. It’s a habit that will be very hard to break. I don’t find anything.
Fortnum and Mason is the next stop on our list. I am going to change out my old Fortnum and Mason’s hessian shopping bag for a new one. It is a bag for life. I pick up a new bag and take it to the checkout together with my old bag. “My madam, that’s an old one,” the girl says. “Yes, I’ve had it for ten or more years, but it now has a hole in it.” “Time for a new one, she says. No charge of course.” I thank her and wander proudly around the store with my brand-new hessian bag. It is a small thing, but it pleases me. Now is the time that I fill my shopping basket with brightly coloured, shiny, cylindrical tins of biscuits and with ornate tins of teas that remind me of exotic places. I pick them up and I put them back. I raise my eyebrows at the prices. Inflation is one thing. This is another. And I remember that this year I shall not see my mother’s eyes light up when she finds them in her stocking. Determined not to leave the store empty handed, I buy one tin of biscuits for a friend. Sad that there are so few things in my shopping bag, I have nonetheless enjoyed revisiting the store and had time to remember the joy of buying gifts for my mother.
In need of sustenance of the liquid variety we drop into the Ritz for a cocktail in the Rivoli Bar. It is buzzing. Afternoon tea now starts at eleven in the morning and runs through until six in the evening. It reminds me of the time I bought my mother here for afternoon tea. She had never been here before, but it had been a dream of hers to do so. “One day we will go to the Ritz.” I can see her sitting there opposite me. Sitting in a gold leaf chair, she looks regal, she belongs. Her eyes sparkle as the waiter, dressed in cream tuxedo, pours tea into exquisite fine china cups. One day, I remember telling her, we’ll do it again. We did – one more time. The Ritz cocktail of the month is called Autumn. We raise our glasses to those we have loved, but not lost.
I return home with very few Christmas presents but with a whole host of lovely memories of my mother.