Traditionally, as you sink into the bottom of a large glass and wonder why it is that with eight boxes of books still unpacked since the move fifty-one weeks ago, two boxes of DVDs ditto, internet access and three large boxes of CDs, a saxophone, two guitars, a harmonica, a penny whistle, a laptop and an un-numberable er, number of notebooks, you’re still arsing around on Facebook marvelling at the state of other people’s lives, the more rubbish the better so you can feel good about yours, (Your car won’t start again? You got a job selling advertising space? You live in Bradford? I am soooooooo sorry…LOLS) it’s time to look back to other times and other Christmases. And not to look at the ones that are all about “we just got back from our 14th power break to Iceland in time to collect the new convertible.” If anyone apart from me actually says power break anymore. Pass me my Ray-Bans, would you? Mega.
Well I think it is anyway. It was alright for Charles Dickins, so I can’t see what YOUR problem is with it, exactly. It’s this anger management thing, isn’t it? I’ve been told about that before. I was JOKING! Jeez….
Anyway. Probably my most memorable Christmas was in Lyme Regis. We’d gone down there for ten days or so. It was one of those times when the more you remember it, the more you remember about it. The epic walk that only stopped when the abandoned railway line we were following headed off over a derelict viaduct and we eventually decided that we wouldn’t follow it. It wasn’t a very health & safety conscious trip though. That was the day after or maybe before we got cut off by the tide through reading the Tide Tables in the fossil shop and not having a phone with us had the option of climbing the cliffs that were marked “unscalable” on the map.
Well, they aren’t. Some of the time was spent sliding twenty feet back down towards the waves, surfing the scree, some of it was spent in a lunar landscape that very few people have ever seen and more was spent hacking through the bramble patch at the top of the cliffs once we’d got to the top, but we here both are separately all this time later, telling the story. Some of it was seriously ‘maybe-we-aren’t-going-to-get-out-of-this frightening, but come on, we’re English so we can’t talk about it and anyway there was nothing much around in the way of choices aside from drowning. It does focus the attention. Buck-up and bang on, what?
We’d thought a friend was coming down to join us but he didn’t. We stayed in a flat in a two hundred year old building belonging to another friend where odd things happened. I couldn’t get the Mercedes I’d had for six months down the narrow alley to the flat. What I thought was a shotgun in an usual case that was going to be my Christmas present turned out to be a vintage Martin saxophone, so old it was marked Low Tone because back then they hadn’t invented the word ‘Tenor.’
The second day after I’d opened it I couldn’t find the clamp that holds the reed on. We turned the flat upside down looking for it, packed, unpacked, but it wasn’t there anymore. We had a trip to the nearest town to buy a new one but none of the Bridport shops had one. When we got back it was sitting in exactly the centre of the bedroom floor, in plain view, on its own. I spent twenty minutes in silence watching someone make a phone call, which I wouldn’t normally do, except that she was naked and shining from her bath. I remember that still.
When our other friends came down for New Year and the street was shut by the police for more saxophone action and we ended up face down in a pile of rubber balls, that was another good bit too.
But of all of that, Christmas Eve was the best. We’d spent most of the evening in The Volunteer after trying out a drink or two in the pub at the bottom of the hill where they took the bodies from the famous shipwreck, where the landlords little dog wouldn’t let one of the bodies alone, licking the dead man’s face until he lived again. That was around the corner from the hotel I’d stayed in when I needed to get some time on my own and came down to Lyme, staying in a room that no hotel could offer now, with a shared bathroom at the end of the corridor and a single bed, much the same as it must have been when American officers were billeted there prior to D-Day in 1944.
At about half past eleven the first few came past the door. By quarter to there were more. By five to there were so many people streaming in their winter coats and some distinctly out of them down the hill that we asked the barman what was going on. Church. Midnight carol service.
So we went. It was like something out of a Jimmy Stewart film. There were the kind of old people you’d expect to see in church. There were the traditional Christmas drunks. But there was everybody else as well. Giggles of girls in their teens with vodka-vacant eyes. Guys who looked like they’d been up welding cars till late. Every kind and age of person you can imagine, smart and scruffy, sober and drunk, old and young, all crammed into this tiny stone church on top of the hill, singing the songs that somehow we really all knew.
I don’t do church. Not even if it’s called St Michael the Archangel, which gives it a bit of clout in the world of angels and other made-up stories, I’d imagine. Promised Land, anyone? Or have you just had one?
I had to go to church when I was a child and I stopped as soon as I could. I don’t believe in the Queen as the head of my faith, because I don’t really have one and I can’t see what she’s got to do with it anyway, coming from a family that even changed its name to suit their circumstances. The girls pushing thirty now who were only going back to their childhood beds by way of half an hour in Daryl’s Renault first probably didn’t have much of a faith either. Except we were all there while the wind howled outside, safe together in the light, singing songs about cold and starvation and death and poverty. And nobody said they could have got all that at home. Not even me.