My Nightmare Before Christmas

 

Last Christmas Eve I found water gushing through a crack in my mother’s bedroom ceiling. It had been raining for days – it was still raining – and snow showers were expected. She lives alone in Notting Hill in a house behind the Gate Cinema, a 93-year-old widow surrounded by a collection of British art (she had known Carel Weight) and knickknacks from her travels round the world. The bedclothes were waterlogged but I was not too concerned. The water poured down onto the bed at its own unhurried pace. A smell of chestnuts roasting reached me from the kitchen. I was thinking of King Wenceslas (was he really that good?) when the ceiling began to bow. I reeled back in fright as half the ceiling broke apart before my eyes amid a roar of spewed water and plaster chunks. Next I was standing in quantities of floodwater, drenched.

 

 

It was a dark Thursday afternoon. My mother was watching a Steptoe and Son Christmas re-run in the room beneath the flood and, being slightly deaf, unaware of the commotion. Opposite her the Christmas tree winked with glass balls and on the television set was a model manger with Two Wise Kings (they had arrived early: the third was still on his way). My fear was that the flooded bedroom might collapse on top of her  – and on top of her collection of Eileen Agars, Elizabeth Blackadders and other collectable Britons. I hurried to shut off the electricity at the mains and from the kitchen I grabbed a plastic bucket and plastic storage boxes and with these I ran upstairs. The flood there was swelling up fast; it was back-breaking work as I repeatedly lugged the baled-out water into the bathroom across the way and emptied it out. I heard my mother call out:

 

“Would you be a dear and fetch me a glass of wine? And one of your nice mince pies?”

 

I phoned my wife and asked her to get hold of a roofer. There was no time to hunt for quotes on Christmas Eve: “Just take the first roofer available.” By now the water was shooting down through a mess of exposed timber beams and roof wadding. A debris of things lost, forgotten or worthless swirled about my feet in two inches of water: photographs, electricity bills, John Lewis receipts, a baptismal certificate. Water, water everywhere (including in my shoes), the carpet squishy underfoot.

 

After two hours the roofer arrived. He had on a reindeer jumper and smelled of mulled wine – aromatic. “You look a bit stressed, sir.” Really? (I only had cuts to my face from flying roof debris.) He looked up at the ceiling: “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Had I not been there to bale out, the house would have turned into a “riverboat” with me and my mother up on the roof for the duration. He thought the water tank in the attic might be the culprit. With some difficulty I gave him a bunk-up as he had no ladder. He was right: the freak rains had not wrecked the room after all, but a ruptured tank. Most water tanks these days are galvanized zinc. “But they do CORRODE!” the roofer shouted down to me, adding: “Do yourself a favour – ask Santa for a new one…” He fiddled with the stopcock and ladled out what water remained, passing it down to me in washing up bowls.

 

 

The waters had receded at least and the immediate danger passed. With the help of a mate who arrived mildly intoxicated from an office party in Staines the roofer moved furniture to safety on the far side of the pulled-apart room. Most of it was now ruined. What was left of the ceiling was then dismantled. The roofers threw rubble and mattresses, bed bases, plaster, timber and roof insulation material out of the bedroom window and onto the street. Next, they lifted up and removed sodden carpeting and underlay, and dumped that onto the street also. The house on Farm Place was now an anti-social mess. The detritus left on the narrow street in front of it would have to be disposed of by Boxing Day at the latest or else Kensington and Chelsea would fine my mother for fly-tipping or perhaps present her with an ASBO. (They are that sort of a royal borough.) The rubbish was removed by trailer late that Christmas Eve, before the roofers at last headed home at 10.00pm.

 

My mother had fallen asleep over the mince pies (they were not that nice) but the ordeal was far from over. Hungry to despoil, the water had seeped down three floors to spread out behind bookshelves, electrical wiring, an Eduardo Paolozzi pop fantasia of New York and other stuff. In the study the water had collected on the ceiling above the piano in giant puffy blisters. I covered the piano in bathroom towels and put buckets under the blisters and slit them open with a knife. Out gushed a silty Bisto-brown liquid – the stuff of the horror B-movie Christmas Evil. It was long past midnight by the time the leaks had ceased. When I came out of the house the next morning it was snowing. The neighbour said it was like a Christmas card, and so it was, with carol singers on the doorstep already. The flood had scarcely registered with my mother.

 

This article first appeared in the Christmas 2021 edition of the Tablet.