Being a long-serving bachelor, and with British weather helpfully providing me with a plausible excuse for not travelling, I traditionally spend Christmas alone, and when I say “Christmas” I actually mean about three weeks, starting a week ahead of the day itself and ending a few days into the new year. No expectations of going out, enough food and drink to feed about three of me, and so many films, games and books that I’d do ok keeping occupied on a return trip to Mars. Solitude and over-consumption; what a magical time of year it is.
Tempting though it is to stay in for the entire duration, to go from several weeks of hermitage to diving headfirst into office life, rush hour commuting and, you know, society in general, is pretty dangerous. Like a deep-sea diver who must be brought slowly back to the surface to avoid getting the bends, I try to spend a few days at the end of my break re-acclimatising myself to the general public, just getting an hour or two of exposure a day to familiarise myself with their smells and sounds, or else the risk of me being found roaming the streets late at night gibbering about people standing on the left is just too great. Three weeks is a long time; you start to forget how appalling the human race is, even with the constant drip-feed of social media and television programmes by Steven Moffat to remind you.
I like to start my decompression with a walk to Hampstead and back. The advantages of this are twofold; one is that it gets me a decent bit of exercise after weeks of lethargy, atrophied muscles and the constant wearing of flight socks, and two is that I encounter a lot of terrible people in a fairly safe, clean and spacious environment. If you ever want to see the pro-smacking argument, Hampstead is the place to be; almost every adult there is in dire need of a smack.
Hampstead is a place of nervous pugs and electric scooters for children. There’s a Wyndham-esque uniformity to the populace, and if you don’t have a phone in one hand and a takeaway coffee cup in your other, you won’t look like you belong; the men all dress like they have a subscription to Nigel Hall Menswear and the women, while not actually dressed in horse riding gear, definitely all have a hint of jodhpur about them. There are so many babies in slings I feared I’d missed a collection point upon entering; surely within moments I’d be cornered by someone with a laminated badge, asking me where my slung baby was, then brusquely escorting me to the border of Belsize Park.
Then there’s conversation. Conversation is tricky for me at the best of times, but after a three week period in which the only time I use my voice is to swear at some meat that hasn’t defrosted, I can come back out into the world talking like Nell if I’m not careful. To spark some life into my neglected small-talk neurones, I go and get a haircut; trapped in a chair for half an hour while someone interrogates you on how your weekend was and what your weekend plans are is a miserable experience but it’s good way to re-learn common words, phrases and idioms.
Finally, I make sure I eat out a couple of times. A digestive system that spends three weeks exposed only to meat, roast potatoes and biscuits can grumble a little when it starts encountering greenery again, and a few glares from waiting staff and other customers is enough to help me break the habit of eating slices of ham in the same way other people eat crisps.