Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Tony Deyal | Curtains for Christmas

Published:Saturday | December 24, 2016 | 12:00 AM

What makes life a stage, especially at Christmas time, is the emphasis on curtains. They open and close the festive season, revealing to the world a house 'put away', as my family and neighbours used to say. There was the oilcloth, tablecloth and the plastic kitchen curtains bedecked with pictures of foreign fruits, the stretchy, springy metal curtain 'rods' with the little hooks at the end holding on to bent nails on both sides of the window frame, the linoleum of as many colours as Joseph's coat, and the smell of boiling ham and baking fruit cake.

The little wooden Christmas tree with its artificial snow on silver paper, dull bulbs saying halo down below, was a prop, mere window dressing. The living room curtains were the piËce de rÈsistance. New living room and dining room furniture of shining chrome and plastic backs proved the point that a chair was still a chair, even when there was no one sitting there. But a house was not a home without curtains.

Even when Christmas was just around the corner, it did not turn the bend until the curtains were up and our mothers stepped back to admire their handiwork. Driven round the bend yourself with having to wait for food and find some nails and pound your fingers, you were merely a bit player who just strutted and fretted, but of no great pith and moment, signifying nothing really. The curtains were stage right, left and centre.

From the inside looking out, it was impossible at the time to appreciate the drama, the curtain call. The neighbours, unconscious of their parts, played them to perfection, peeping and peering through their curtains to see whose were better. If they pulled their curtains angrily down, you knew that the Joneses were not merely caught up with, but were passed and surpassed, drawn and torn asunder.

 

OTHER THINGS NOT AS IMPORTANT

 

No chimney for Santa Claus to pass through. No problem. No ham, no ginger beer, no sorrel even, still no problem. But no curtains meant no Christmas. That was the long, short, broad and tall of it all.

Those days having passed, I seemed to have developed an indifference to the ritual. Call it my age of un-curtainty, but I somehow lost time past and concentrated on time presents, working more on the gifts that I would have to get than those that I had lost. No Magi me. No more standing on a wobbly stool, trying to pound a nail that I could not see with a hammer that I could hardly hold. Or standing on the padded seat of the chrome chair and hearing the sploof of air escaping as my weight crushed down on it.

A little music perhaps, some liquor, even a piece of cake, mottled in the light of the blinking Christmas tree, but the curtains, now on chrome rods instead of the spring things, were no longer my business. Ask me to help and I got angry - call it the drapes of wrath.

What I did not realise at the time was that the curtains were a vital thread in the fabric of my existence. There is a Paul Anka song that makes the point that when a girl changes from bobby socks to stockings, it is more than a change from cotton to silk. I had not realised that crinoline to brocade was also a transition that symbolised more than a board to a concrete house. People talk about rites of passage, but in retrospect, I see the windows of opportunity, as well as the doors I have shut after the horses have bolted. They are all curtained and screened until you lift the veil or pull the cord.

Some historians have pointed out that the concept of privacy did not exist in the Middle Ages. Houses were open. There was no division into separate spaces. Marshall McLuhan, the media philosopher, said that the introduction of the printing press and the availability of books made privacy an issue. People wanted their own spaces. I disagree. I think that the curtains caused it. They look temporary and it is easy to get stabbed when you're hiding behind one, as Polonius found out. He was dead and Hamlet did not give arras.

 

CRIMINAL OMISSION

 

My next close call came when I was doing a journalism degree in Canada. In those days, the profession was still conservative. If you used a surname and left out the 'Mr' or 'Mrs', 'Miss' or 'Ms', that person was presumed to have committed a crime, or worse. You could say.

'Tump', but you could not refer to 'Rowley' or 'Persad-Bissessar' regardless of the provocation or your political alignment. Thus it was that as an intern, I was on the editorial desk when Noel Coward, the playwright, died. And so it came to pass that having to write the headline for the story of the demise of Mr Coward, I came up with 'Curtains for Coward'. I was lambasted, chewed up, spat out and stomped on by my professor. It was the closest curtain call I ever had until in 2006, about two weeks before Christmas, I prepared to depart from Port-of-Spain to our home in Antigua into which we had moved from Belize only three short months previously.

And there went forth messages from my wife, Indranie, who grew up in Guyana, but it could have been anywhere in the Caribbean, and who, too, knows that Christmas and curtains are like ham and eggs (except she was a vegetarian at the time), or Angelina and Brad (now split up), or black cake and white rum, or whatever pairings you prefer. I will go for needle and thread. I got a she-mail on my computer regarding the purchase and transport of 10 to 12 panels for the living room, for the master bedroom, six each for the children's rooms and three for the kitchen. As I took in the price, I saw a picture in my mind's eyes of my mother on her Singer machine and could almost hear the 'brrr' of the electric motor. She left us a few months ago, but while the Singer is gone, the song persists. Comparing the price of the cloth and thread to the finished goods, I realised that it would have cost much less if we reverted to the good old days. However, whatever my moral fibre or fabric, I resisted the temptation. Call me a damask if you will, but I preferred to pay the price than to be deemed an old sew-and-sew.

- Tony Deyal, draped across the doctor's cot, was last seen telling his doctor he felt like a pair of curtains. "Pull yourself together," the doctor admonished.