Around this time of year, I count my blessings and give thanks for my good looks, august wit and private wealth, but most of all I thank God for my friend, D, who owns an island in the Caribbean, from where I write to you now.
I only arrived three days ago and already the sand, fine and white as sugar – an irony considering this island’s past! – and the sea, a range of azure to indigo, and the sky, a bright canvas dotted by puffs of cloud, make me feel like Europe was nothing but a dream from which I’ve woken up in paradise. I will be here for Christmas, and probably the New Year. And very possibly the whole of January, the bleakest month in the calendar. The year for me actually starts around April; but perhaps one must give a semblance of understanding winter.
I hate winter. I have an impatience for warmth and movement. All this cozying around in oversized woollen jumpers, dressed as shaggy dogs – I cannot understand it. I like to feel the air on my bare skin, the sun on my face, the days that seem to last three times as long. I enjoy a crackling fire as much as the next person – but in moderation, not constantly, as if we were fishwives gathering excitedly round a stove to griddle a single pancake for the next six months.
When I was younger, my father would insist that we had a traditional Christmas. Every year, until I was sixteen and ran away, he hired a Scottish castle – what was traditional about that for a Venezuelan-English girl? – and there he would make his family congregate – a clan, if you will. I recall gloomy brickwork, tapestries and armour on the walls. Heavy dishes of venison and overly-filled mince pies – and my mother’s paper gold crown from those stiff Harrods crackers that Nanny had been charged to purchase, resting on the top of her blow-dried hair. Such a struggle to pull apart! And no one bothered to share the jokes.
It is strange, because we were, by nature, a fairly vibrant family: quixotic, rude. But Christmas seemed to hold us in a kind of stasis. Perhaps it was the forced, collective fun and cheer we were supposed to have? Perhaps the ghosts of divorces past, or those of the future hovering round the dining table? I do not know. All I know is, I swore that when I was old enough, I would do Christmas my way, or maybe not at all.
I am pleased to report to you, my little elves, that Manuela has succeeded. As you know, I care very little (mostly not at all) for any externally-applied sense of decorum or tradition. To do as others do is the solace of the unimaginative. Naturally, it is wonderful to have friends who own private islands, and I will admit this is an element to ensure my happiness at Christmas. But these friends did not grow overnight! I earned their trust and their love by being myself, entirely, from the moment we had our first conversation. They know Manuela will never let them down, Manuela understands their souls, Manuela looks absolutely perfect in a kaftan at sundown as Jingle Bells plays on the gramophone. I give back where I receive. They saw something in me, and I in them, and that is known as friendship.
If I am spending Christmas on D’s island, we usually dine on Christmas Eve with a proper dinner, rather than the vulgarity of a giant turkey or a dense plum pudding on the 25th. I usually wear Jil Sander or DVF for this dinner. Other guests come in from neighbouring islands. The fishermen will have been out in the ocean, and at dusk, to the sounds of the lapping waves we dine on scallops, crab and seabass. Something containing very dark chocolate at the end. We might play a game of cards. The conversation flows, and D insists on playing all her Ivor Novello records. This is not my island: I cannot complain.
(The guests return to their own islands, we retire early, and sleep well. I never dream on D’s island, which is odd, given its overabundance of beauty and fragrance, its excess of colour and fruitfulness. Perhaps, finally, my external world meets my internal floribundance at a perfect measure, so my unconscious does not need to work at all?)
My Christmas Day on the island unfolds thus:
I rise early, and alone. The maid will have already been in and laid out a glass of Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and a small gold saucer of salted almonds. I put on my one-piece – somehow, a bikini feels wrong on the day that Christ was born! – and, after sipping severally on the champagne, I wander down to the shoreline for a few stretches. I give thanks to my strong knees.
Slipping into that ludicrous velvet water, I swim for about an hour round the cove. I take that time to think of the year that is nearly over – remembering those who have passed away from this world, and those who have freshly entered it. I congratulate myself on at least twelve good things I’ve done (one for every month, either for myself or others), and I resolve to telephone at least one difficult person in my Filofax who I know needs a call from me more than I need to withhold it. It is usually a member of my family.
Then I forget all about that deep stuff and get ready for the day.
After breakfast (grapefruit, mango, Bloody Mary), D takes us on a drive around the island in her ancient jeep. It’s bone-joltingly old, this jeep, but it belonged to her father; it has sentimental power so I grip hard onto the sides and say nothing. We go for the views; they are spectacular. Across the bay the sky opens up to us like second sea, huge and blue and bright. It stops the breath in you, crystalline as a Bellini, and I almost expect little cherubims and seraphims to come floating out of it to tell us of a squealing baby, born amongst some hay.
No angels come of course, but none are needed when D’s cook is in the kitchen. We return home to the villa for a barbeque – I know! me, dining on barbecue! But I adore it, my little elves – all that chargrilled meat, those peppers sweetly blackened! I never share the name of D’s cook because D cannot bear the thought of him being poached. But forget Father Christmas; this man makes me happier than any stuffed stocking in my bed.
Sated, we drink margaritas out of coconut shells, lie on sun-loungers and watch the dolphins far out on the horizon. D might light up a joint, and I’ll partake – it is Christmas, after all, and I feel blissfully shod of any personal responsibility. We exchange small gifts – nothing larger than a few hundred dollars, and usually themed. D sends the theme out weeks in advance; I can recall the challenges of ‘Arthur and Guinevere’, ‘White Rabbits’ and ‘Dogs in the paintings of Carpaccio’ – her imagination is at times a challenge. I would be quite happy with a silk kimono.
In the evening, we have fireworks. I wear McQueen. We dance around a crackling fire (acceptable when made of driftwood, and burning on a beach), and the stars come out, and I thank them, my lucky ones, that I am here. That rain-lashed Scottish castle feels very far away; my father in an ill-fitting kilt, my brother, swinging from a plate of armour. That little Manuela, breathing the Elnette of her mother’s blow-dry, now inhales the sweet smoke of Caribbean grass. Progress, I think.
Happy Christmas, my little elves. May you, too, find your own starlit moment.
See you in the next decade,
Your ever-loving friend,