A homage to Mr D Thomas
Those Christmas days, those always endless days, started way back when the leaves were still clinging to the trees; the seeds of Christmas 1984 were sown when the Great Universal Autumn/Winter catalogue thumped through the front door, loaded with Lego and train sets and Casio watches, waterproof to 5 metres. Through the autumn and darkening months, those well-thumbed pages were taken to bed and worshipped.
I looked out through my criss-cross bedroom window on that Christmas Eve morning; that boringly dull morning that never really felt like Christmas Eve. The houses behind ours stood staid and solemn, smoke slowly and silently rising from their chimneys. And the old steel streetlight that would light up my bedroom at night stood cold and hard; waiting. The great autumn storms had long rolled through, leaving the still churned soil kissed with frost and our trees naked as bones. From the pigeon hut in the garden opposite ours, the grey and blue doves took to the skies as if it was any other day, swooping and cutting through the ice clouds, oblivious to Christmas; ignorant of festivities.
Christmas Eve day, in my memory was long, stretched and grey, waiting for dark. And lots of cleaning.
‘Have you done the Shake and Vac? They’ll be here for dinner tomorrow.’
Dad rumbled through the house with the pregnant hoover.
‘I’ve only got two pair of hands.’
‘Did you remember to buy Kia-Ora for the kids?’
‘We’ve got loads of pop. The Corona lorry came round yesterday.’
The dark sacred night slipped quietly over the town as we took it in turns to bathe and don our towelling pyjamas and dressing gowns that had been warmed on the radiators. Clean-cheeked and cross-legged, we watched The Snowman with twinkling eyes as Mam baked sausage rolls in the oven.
‘You can go to bed for a few hours before Midnight Mass.’ We never slept. My two brothers and I lay in our bunks and spoke about what the man in red might bring overnight. Mari, my sister, lay in her box bedroom alone at the front of the house, overlooking an empty Jenner Park as the night stirred on.
The blesséd and holy were ushered into the church by Ted Thomas, shiny-shoed and handing out order of services. Cherry-nosed and sheet faced, the congregation quietly took their seats as I set about my acolyting duties, lighting each candle in the church. Up near the altar, sat at the entrance to a cavern of pipes and stops sat Mr Evans, the organist, his great swirl of hair washed for the first time that year. On windy days, his grey swirl would unfurl and stretch out like a wispy Wednesday afternoon rain cloud. But tonight, on the holiest of nights, it sat perfectly festooned on his head.
The service started at half eleven prompt, just as The Windsor across the road was spewing out. The choir stalls where we sat smelt of sweet oak and hardened chewing gums. And our cassocks, fusty and musty as grandfathers, and tight under the armpits, had seen many a Midnight Mass.
Down the front were Laurel and Hardy. Mrs Morgan, in her hat and coat, ancient as Methuselah, stood next to Mrs Llewellyn, never smiling and scented with lavender and warm chicken soup. Behind them, a giggling cwtching couple, young and in love, and in the seats that no one ever sat in; never seen before and never to be seen again.
Mam was sat a few rows back, all shoulder pads and perm. Sunday best on a Monday night. A few other of my aunties and uncles filled out the row, all Christians, all still awake, saluting the happy morn. And when we’d done all our singing and praising, we headed out into the dark chill and on to home. The rector snuck off to his rectory in his holy Mini Metro for a late night glass of sherry and a warm mince pie.
Our grandparents lived up the hill, which we could see from our house. Mam would often ask me to look out the window to see if they were in. So I stood in our front room and watched them make their slow way up the hill in their Triumph Toledo after they’d dropped us home. I could hear the glug-glugging of the Baileys and the clinking of the glasses from the living room next door but the front room where I stood was peaceful.
The coloured lights on the tree bloomed silent as stars. I leant down to the Waltham stereo player that was on the bottom shelf and pressed play on the tape deck. I think it was the Coventry Carol that came on. The volume was low but the choristers’ haunting euphony drifted out from the speakers. I moved over the bay window and looked out. It was a cold hard night. The concrete lampposts stood guarding the steel streets but across the way came the warm glow of light from my grandparents’ living room window. I could see them, taking off their coats, and then share an embrace and a kiss under the mistletoe that was hanging from the light fixture. Across the distance, and despite the silence of the night outside the window, I could sense their love for each other. And it was at that moment, while that town was settling down for the night, that I felt that for once, the world was safe and at peace.
Crinkle toes and gravid stocking that bulged with corners. Waking up on Christmas morning was an endless riot of toys, wrapping paper and pitchless windows. As the milky sun came up, and as the trail of bacon drifted up the stairs, boxes were spilled open and instructions were laid out on carpet.
For Mari: a bike called Melody with a plastic cream white basket; a Cabbage Patch doll called Isabel Julia; a Big Yellow Teapot that Dad said looked like an angry man sticking his tongue out; a Little Professor calculator; a Cadbury’s selection pack (the Topic bar was given to Mam).
Dan: A Raleigh Boxer; a red bucket of Stickle Bricks; a Slinky spring that came down the stairs; a Connect 4 game; Buckaroo; a Cadbury’s selection pack (the Topic bar was given to Mam).
Dylan: Mostly Duplo. Baby Lego.
Me: A raven black Strika bike with pretend suspension bars and a thick foam seat; a metal torch that changed its light from white to green to red; a keyring Rubik’s cube; a Superman Annual; a Lego set; a Cadbury’s selection pack (the Topic bar was given to Mam); a packet of glow in the dark stars – seventy five stick on stars and nine planets.
‘They’re for your bedroom ceiling.’ said Dad.
So while Mam peeled the sprouts in the steam window kitchen, Dad was up a paint-splattered step ladder, sticking seventy five stars and nine planets to our bedroom ceiling.
After Christmas dinner, we were allowed to open presents from old aunties we never knew. The long dull thrill of opening a pack of white socks from Aunty Muriel, wrapped with gossamer-skin fingers and a whole roll of sellotape. From the kitchen, and with his turkey-smeared apron on, Dad made the dreaded long distance call to Aunt Vi who lived in Tenby.
There were always grandparents at Christmas. And on Christmas afternoon, soon after the bird carcass had gone cold and tough, they’d arrive. Dada, bow-tied and waistcoat wrapped, would ho-ho-ho his way in through the doors. Nana would follow.
‘A Babycham will be fine, love’.
Christmas meant cherryade from the Corona pop man. And once that had gone, it was American Soda. Peanuts in Tupperware bowls and Twiglets in saucers lounged around the tables and dressers.
‘Chaplin’s on telly.’
‘Can’t stand him. Turn it over.’
‘You do it. I can’t be bothered to get up.’
The afternoon was turning into a dry biscuit day so one of the grown-ups said ‘Let’s go up the pub.’
‘But the Wind in the Willows is on in half an hour.’
‘Ah, I’ll get it for you on VHS. Uncle Colin can get it on pirate. He can do tape-from-tape.’
‘Wow. Can he get the kids E.T? I wonder if he can get us American Werewolf.’
‘He can get us any film we want. He gets them all from his mate down the pub.’
‘What about Scanners?’
So we wrapped up in scarves and hats and climbed our way to the top of the world. The Tynewydd Inn was throbbing like a sore thumb at the top of the hill. And inside sat the old men who never celebrated Christmas like we did.
The lounge was full of grey smoke, loud chatter and the smell of thick yeast carpet. The yellowed curtains held out the chilled edge of night and the framed paintings of yachts that sailed on the walls reminded us of billowing yellow sea days that belonged to summer.
‘Whose Stella is that?’
‘Mine or maybe…’ Bampy’s bold words were cut short by the swell of a song. More beer arrived and so did Bobby, a cousin we didn’t know much about. He had tinsel ginger hair and a pub-warmed face.
‘I remember you coming to our house once,’ he said sitting ‘and I locked you in the cupboard under the stairs for three hours so it would look like I turned on the moon when you came out.’ He sipped his thin beer, his lips cracked and unkissed. I dipped my tongue in my warm squash that had been diluted to the top and watched as huff-cheeked ladies came in from the cold.
The man at the piano ground out a tune that no one knew, apart from the shrill woman in the corner whose face kept sinking wine. In the corner slumped sleeping was Harry Halfhead, his one eye shut and his glass eye looking out to make sure no one disturbed his slumber.
And as quick as a flash, the heavy bell tolled at the bar. The doors belched and we were out in the cold and the black.
So down the raw road we all made our way home, merry and warm and full of wobbly-legged song. Bobby came back, the cousin we didn’t know much about and he was full of beer but he was a cousin nevertheless. Ahead of us, down the hill to the docks, the town sighed and it rested, full of mince pies and Ferrero Rocher. And we laughed and remembered the Christmases past – the one with Major Morgan and the one with the Etch-a-Sketch.
Home was waiting like a big warm smile. And when it was later than we thought tea usually felt like, the patio doors would open and uncles and aunties would step in to the coal fire room. In would float the brisk air and the hooting of the ships behind aunties with their Cinzano glee. Yellow flashes of Hoffmiester in uncles’ Spar plastic bags would spill and froth and hiss.
‘Bring out that Dare game’ was called as we sat by the fire. ‘Boys versus girls and move that clothes dryer.’
The crosslegged family sat down round the new-smelling game board that was too grown up for us. Or so they thought.
‘Who goes first?’
Brian went first with his tight paper Christmas crown that stuck to his head and he sweated and got his question wrong.
‘Your first dare is to do 50 press-ups’ we said as we sniggered. The card said ten but we wanted to see Brian sweat more. But he did all fifty as his pasty shoes quivered.
And after that, we took Bobby out in the cold to be sick and to get a taxi that never came.
Always on Christmas night there was music. From under his sheepskin coat, a newly-arrived uncle brought out a 45 single in its skin-and-bone sleeve. On its front, happy scissor-cut people stood round a Victorian tree with two sad Ethiopian children looking for flies to eat. After thirteen plays of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ a cousin sang ‘Last Christmas’ and another uncle sang ‘Only You’ (all parts). And Auntie Liz, who had brought reindeer brown bottles of cider, sang a skipping song fandango on her own as the room hummed harder. It was very warm in the house. Economy 7 warmed wonders since John Morgan and his band of white van friends had brass-piped it in.
Arfon Haines Davies and his hair said goodnight to the world from his warm studio at Culverhouse Cross and he bid us all a Merry Christmas.
And then I went to my bedroom. I looked out through my criss-cross bedroom window, the blue moonlight resting hushed on the rooftops. The old street lamp stood sentry, silent and still. Its light, its lustre, warmed my room. The pigeons now, restful as snow, slept tight in their hut. I could see the lights in the bedrooms of all the other houses in the street behind ours. And if I listened hard enough, I could hear the rustling laughter and warm music drifting out from the open doors into the winter.
I turned out my lamp and pulled the duvet tight up to my chin. I looked up to my ceiling and counted seventy five stars and nine planets.
I closed my eyes to the world and thanked Christmas and then I slept.