Three Burned Cakes: Christmas Without Mum

This begins with my mother and I baking the Christmas cake together over our shared birthday weekend in October, evolves into a scramble over Mum’s bed for the most holey, misshapen, shrivelled, old-hockey-sock-stocking on Christmas Eve, and culminates in the Rawlinson choir of doom ploughing proudly through the carols in our old school’s chapel on Christmas Day. The rules are rigid (one present in the morning, but the rest after supper) and dissenters are quickly made to conform (as my brother’s wife, Maia, learned swiftly when she spent her first Christmas with us last year).

And then there’s food. There must be bread sauce, and lashings of it, eaten without question with the three different types of meat that are invariably made quick work of over the period of festive gorging (goose on the Eve, turkey on the Day, ham on Boxing Day and as many three-meat Christmas sandwiches as you can manage in the interim, naturally). Rigorous application of the rules makes for what we are all convinced is the perfect family Christmas, and one that we have been deploying solidly for years.  All of this presents rather a problem when you are faced with the prospect of inescapable change, due to the fact that you no longer have your mother to bake your Christmas cake with, you don’t have her bed to on which to choose your stockings, or her voluntary – unrequested – carol descant to send you into unstoppable giggles at the chapel on Christmas Day.  On 9 May this year, breast cancer killed our mum. After she was first diagnosed, in May 2015, she underwent nine months of chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy. She was sustained – and she sustained us – by her characteristic courage and good humour. She was given the ‘all-clear’, and returned to work in September 2016 as a much-loved housemistress at the Cheltenham Ladies’ College, for one final year before her planned retirement. She was enjoying being back with the girls (whom she adored and who adored her), whilst looking forward to all the new opportunities that retirement would bring. But on 3 May she was told the cancer had returned, and six days later it claimed her life.  There are not words enough to describe what she experienced or what we went through with her. It was unimagined, and brutal. She is irreplaceable. Her suffering was cruel, and to us feels bitterly unjust. Of course, the rip inside each of us, the hollowness and the ache of her absence, feels even more acute at a time when we have traditionally been privileged with the prospect of spending Christmas with her, together, in our home.  This year then, Christmas will not – and cannot – be the same: tradition is finally and forever broken. I know. I have, so far, burned three Christmas cakes (and have, gloriously, actually set fire to one – I have the photos to prove it). In that, we now know who was really the brains behind the Christmas cake operation, though every year she let me take all the credit.

So, we make a change. This year on Christmas Day my brothers and I will be going running. This is because we are running the 2018 London Marathon (counter-acting our love of Christmas food will be crucial in our bid to get through all 26-plus miles) to raise money for Breast Cancer Now, the UK’s leading breast cancer charity, who fund research into secondary breast cancer. My family and I believe that this is a vital part of the fight to stop breast cancer taking lives.  One in eight women in the UK will face breast cancer during her lifetime. Every 45 minutes another woman dies from the disease. This disease affects everyone, everywhere, every day. Each step we run will be for our mum, but it will also be for every woman and every family that has been affected by breast cancer.

Mum would have been 60 on 20 October this year, on world Breast Cancer Awareness Day, which is why we’ve decided to aim high, and make it our target to raise £60,000 for Breast Cancer Now.

So, this Christmas, we start a new tradition: one that is likely to be better for our bodies than a tri-carnal feast, but also one that we hope will make a difference. Every year, on Christmas Day, we will run together, and we will think of our mum, and we will talk about her together, and we will laugh at all of those foibles of hers that we are so fond of, and we will probably cry a little too. But above all, we will keep fundraising for the fight against cancer, and we will think of news ways to help to beat this disease.

Breast Cancer Now’s ambition is that by 2050 everyone who develops breast cancer will live and we have now made this our aim too. You can support us by donating to our fundraising page here

To help support Breast Cancer Now’s world-class research targeting incurable secondary breast cancer, visit