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Stam-merry Christmas!

Michael Fletcher, Mandy Taylor, Julie Jobson | 01.12.2013

Three readers recount yuletide tales of poignancy and proud accomplishments to help get us in the Christmas spirit.

Stammering Michael... fluent Father Christmas

Father Christmas ringing a bell, with girl.By Michael Fletcher

In 2011 my wife Elaine had just opened a photography studio after being made redundant from the Civil Service. It was situated in an ancient arcade (The Ffwrrwm) in the Roman tourist village of Caerleon in South Wales. It was always Elaine’s dream. Christmas was approaching and the arcade looked wonderfully festive, with a real Norwegian fir tree. Somebody said that all it lacked was a Santa’s Grotto - my wife then had the idea of creating one in her studio and charging a small fee for a visit to Father Christmas, a present and a professional photo – in the hope that it would generate future business.

We had a problem – we didn’t have a Father Christmas. My brother-in-law Chris would have been ideal with his real white beard and hair – but he was working elsewhere. Perhaps we could ask one of the other shopkeepers – but they were also busy. A professional Santa would probably charge more than we would make, as our charge was modest. The Studio was struggling so I suggested the unthinkable – would I be any good as a Santa? I have a very severe overt stammer and would normally turn the studio lights off if Elaine went to the toilet to avoid being approached by a customer. Elaine worryingly asked, “Are you sure you would want to put yourself through that?” We both knew what she meant.

I wanted to help her and had always been able to talk to children, although we didn’t have any of our own. How difficult could it be? I had always responded very well to every speech technique that I had been taught (and there are many) – but only in the short term. I decided to take a chance and pretend that Santa’s voice was a speech technique.

It’s amazing how a few ‘Ho, ho, ho’s’ preceded by a costal breath can fill you with confidence.

The outfits were ordered and the studio transformed into a grotto. As soon as I put the wig and beard on I knew that I would probably be OK. I was quite simply no longer Michael – I was Father Christmas! It’s amazing how a few ‘Ho, ho, ho’s’ preceded by a costal breath can fill you with confidence.

The first day of my Santa shift arrived and to my horror the first customers were the owners of The Ffwrrwm and four children all at once. I was expecting a solitary child of about 4 years of age. The familiar fear returned but every escape mechanism that I have was not available. Santa can’t stammer; Santa can’t suddenly need to go to the toilet or pretend he had an urgent call on his mobile and have to walk out!

So I went for it – a loud “Ho, ho, ho” three times in succession filled me with confidence. I spoke to the children perfectly, even answering difficult questions from a suspecting child about the logistics of visiting every house in one night. I winged the answer as well as my fluency. I talked to the parents too, although that was more difficult. I was even able to walk up the High Street, ringing my bell, and talk to strangers to bring business in.

Whilst on a break, the shopkeeper next door caught me having a sandwich without my beard on and asked how business was. I stammered very badly until I put the beard back on and continued in Santa’s voice.

It was a truly magical experience for both my wife and I. We met many children and parents and enjoyed it. It was also a turning point in our lives. We realised that we love children and had missed out by not having any, so decided to try for our own. Despite our advancing age and odds stacked against us, my wife gave birth to twin boys Samuel and Thomas on 29th October 2013. Ho, ho, ho and merry Christmas!

The ghost of Christmas past

Mandy TaylorBy Mandy Taylor

Christmas. A time for great joy. For me, well, it was slightly different. 1980. My baby brother had his first Christmas and all was ideal. I was 8 and had just got a Girl's World (a doll that you could put make-up on and extend the hair). Funny the things that stick in your mind.

One week later my life changed forever. My mum sadly passed away after suffering a brain haemorrhage. Christmas would never be the same again. Around that time I became aware of having a stammer (apparently I stammered beforehand but it got much worse). I returned to school a few weeks later and my words just wouldn't come out. When they did, the repetitions left me exhausted, stressed and embarrassed. Over the years I learned to accept my new family dynamic. I had great friends and teachers who supported and encouraged me to take on everything I could.

Mandy with Pete and JimThirty-odd years on, I am looking forward to a whole new type of Christmas. This year is the first time that my partner Pete and I are doing Christmas with our families together. I will be surrounded by people who 'get' me and more people that stammer than I can shake a stick at! Pete stammers, as does his mum and my eldest brother. We have children, two who attend speech therapy for various issues and one who has no speech issues at all, well, except for the fact that he never shuts up!

Over the years I have changed from being a little girl who had lost everything to a woman who has so much to be grateful for. This year, Christmas will be filled with family, shopping, dinner and chaos!

Star of the show

LewisBy Julie Jobson

Lewis, who’s seven, has never really been bothered by his speech ‘bumps’, but he did lack confidence generally. Indeed, when he was in year 1 he was asked to be the narrator for his school nativity play. He declined due to the prospect of standing up on stage in front of an audience. However, year 2 saw a massive increase in his confidence level. He was asked to be the ‘Star’ in the Christmas play ‘The Star Who Lost its Twinkle’. Without hesitation he accepted and Grandma made him a costume with flashing fairy lights.

We, as his parents, were extremely cautious about him standing up and saying his lines - he was bumping quite badly at that time, and we worried that he wouldn’t be understood, or that people would start talking about his speech. Our concern was unfounded though, as he stood up on stage and completely rocked it out - bumping through his lines with style and cheeky humour.

He had lots of lines to learn. He was on stage for the whole performance and even had to direct some of the younger children around the stage. At one point the lights dimmed and he almost forgot to switch on his twinkling fairy lights. I spoke to another parent about his performance and she said he appeared so confident that any bumps just went unnoticed; they didn't define or hinder him in any way. Afterwards, we only received positive comments about his performance and his confidence - absolutely nothing about his bumps!

Speaking Out Winter 2013, p.10-11