I took a trip back through time this Christmas. In those strange days between Christmas itself and the New Year, when nothing is as it should be, when it’s too late to do much about this year and too early to do much about the next I drove to Poole to see an old friend, then up to Warminster to see an even older friend, one whose voice I used as Liz in Not Your Heart Away. I took two of her children to Bath. They wanted to do some shopping and I wanted to see yet another friend in the city. They were about the age Ben and Claire and Liz were in the book.
Along the way I turned off the A36 in Rode and took the old route I’d driven a hundred times and more, the same way Claire and Ben drove in the book to find The Red Lion. It’s fiction. I should have known. And I should have known better. It’s not just that the past is another country and they do things differently there. Whoever wrote that didn’t say ‘and they build executive homes in the car park of the Red Lion and ponce-up what was a brilliant pub into someone’s Disney fantasy of a baronial hall to live in.’
But things are never exactly as they seem. It all reminded me of a Christmas tradition we have or had in my family. I don’t know if anyone else still keeps it. I couldn’t, this year. Our tradition goes that at midnight on Christmas Eve, the animals talk. The year before I was born my mother and father stayed on my aunt’s farm and nearing midnight went into their stable to see if it was true, that the animals really did speak.
Last Christmas I went to church close to midnight but this is a dying village. The church was closed. As I got near the dark and silent building I remembered that Midnight Mass had been brought forward to six pm, a more convenient time for the old people who make up most of the village and all of the congregation. As I walked home along the empty road I remembered my family’s story. I got a torch and went to the tree where my chickens roosted then and shone it on the big young cockerel. I heard the church clock strike and as the light caught him the cockerel stirred and put his head back.
And is it true? Do the animals speak, remembering a stable in a story?
What sort of question is that? Of course it’s true. Nobody ever said they have to speak with a human voice.