Snow and a Christmas of long, long ago.
It had come to his notice recently, that over the past few years, supposedly to make things interesting for his grandchildren, and more to the point, to hold their attention, he had been elaborating and embellishing the memories in his stories that he had been telling them. It didn’t matter really at first, but more and more their interest in his past was influencing the manner in which they saw things around them, he had also been told their school work reflected a lot of what had been included in his little ‘yarns’ at bedtime.
“How do you remember Christmas Granddad, did it always snow when you were a boy, like the pictures on the Christmas cards?”
His young granddaughter was quizzically looking at one of the cards and starring at the picture. She reached up and took it off the sideboard, her little face looked up from the card and across to the patio that was all lit up with fairy lights through the French windows of the lounge. It was a mild December evening, no wind or rain, and definitely not cold enough for snow.
She looked back down again at the card in her little hand, a carriage in the foreground with furrows in the snow behind it that the wheels had made. Carol singers gathered round a street lamp singing their hearts out, a typical Christmas scene you find on many a card representing the time of year, everything covered in snow.
She stared at his rugged old face for a minute, then asked him for another story before she had to go to bed, you could tell she was getting eager about the prospect of opening the presents stacked up on the floor in front of her in a few days time, sleep would not come easy for her with all the excitement she was trying to contain.
Previously asking what she wanted Father Christmas to bring her and leave in her stocking, the reply, with a little bit of distain on her face at the thought that one so old should still believe in some imaginary character with a red suit on, and should be coming down a chimney;
“Granddad, don’t be silly!”
There wasn’t a fireplace in the lounge where they sat, a feeling of melancholy and sadness brought a lump to his throat. Looking across from the armchair his eyes fell on the plastic imitation of the Christmas tree covered in baubles that he knew cost his daughter a small fortune.
Two of the items on this little treasure’s list consisted of an ipad, and new laptop. Then if mummy could afford it, a games consol, whatever that was.
He took a small sip of the brandy his daughter had given him and carefully placed it back on the little side table by the armchair, happy that it had in some small way relieved him from the feeling of what had been lost over time, and realised, not for the first time how lucky he was to have such beautiful memories of this period from his young life.
Patting his lap for her to join him, she snuggled down into his frail old arms, so many times in the past her favourite spot when he called to see them.
The smell of freshly baked mince pies and sausage rolls wafted into the lounge from the kitchen where his daughter was busy preparing for the coming festive celebrations, juices of anticipation flooded his mouth to support the brandy as he took another sip.
“Yes it was nearly always snowing at Christmas time;” he started off by telling her.
Pulling the blanket round her little shoulders that had been put there to keep him warm, he carried on, his mind going back to his childhood as if it was only yesterday, remembering his own mothers cooking on those occasions.
Tiny crystal flakes floating down so majestically and settling on the shoulders of his girlfriends camel coat collar and shoulders, glistening underneath the gas street light that was hissing above their heads, each silent floating flake sparkling as the beautiful melody of ‘The First Nowell’ drifted out from St.Georges Church close by. Standing there in ‘Wellies’ and thick coats they both listened to that beautiful melody filling the night air. The snow gently falling was settling on the ground to quite a depth, creating a soft crisp crunch from their footsteps. Her little hand, covered in a pink woollen mitten snuggled into his pocket where his cold hand was, the warmth from those tiny fingers as they encircled his, gave him a comfort knowing it wasn’t just a meaningless gesture, but was also giving her an assurance of belonging as well. Both of them had been so lonely, so isolated with few friends because of their passion in the past before meeting each other, which is another story.Standing there taking in the beauty of their surroundings, dwarfed by that magnificent church, knowing now the majesty of Christmas that rose up inside each of their hearts; the realisation of the meaning to what the season was all about engulfed them with a warmth that neither of them had known before. The love of music overwhelming both their untarnished hearts, two small children who had experienced at such an early age so much joy at what they had found in each others company.
Watching the headstones being covered so silently, sparkling in their new winter coat, they both looked up at what was in front of them on the Church notice board as the snow created a Christmas card view of the massive entrance behind the railings. He read out loud the two words that were printed diagonally in large type across the flyer behind the glass with what was obviously a thrill in his voice, he couldn’t help himself, his words caught in his throat with the excitement he was feeling, he pronounced the two words; ‘The Messiah’ that wonderful music was being performed the coming weekend here in the church they felt was their own. Both of them attended the school a few yards away, wearing with pride the uniform that pronounced to the world of their status in the town where they lived.
Turning her head to look up at him a couple of large crystal flakes of snow fell on her face and quickly melted away through the warmth of her skin running into her eyes, quickly blinking them away that same excitement that he felt, beamed across her face with the prospect of listening to the voices so fresh in her memory of their night in London a couple of weeks before; she whispered, so not to disturb the beautiful silent winter evening that held that melody in the air coming from the church, “Can we go Al’, can we go?”
How lucky he thought, finding someone to share the thrill of the music that was forever present in his heart, he just couldn’t understand why his school friends and also the grownups around him didn’t feel the same. The emotions that he had when hearing and listening to any great work of the masters of his universe cast him aside in the past to a lonely existence, isolating him from the norm, until he was fortunate enough to meet his ever present companion. Sharing their enthusiasm with a relish of life itself, and it set them apart from everyone, but it didn’t matter any more, they had each other.
The following week, there were two small children sitting in the pews at the back of a crowded church, everywhere covered in holly and pine branches smelling of Christmas. No plastic ornaments or garish decorations, just holly and candles that smelt of wax and pine needles. A single voice echoed around that vast area reaching the belfry up above and falling to prime their ears to start the evening with ‘Oh Come All Yee Faithful.’ It was pitch perfect in its clarity; there wasn’t any accompaniment to that beautiful voice, every word as clear as the church bells that had finished their calling a few minutes before.
Sitting on the wooden pews that were hard and not very comfortable, but as the glorious singing began of at least a hundred voices it seemed to fill that church to the rafters, all thoughts of discomfort were lost to both of them. Their young hearts, fit to burst with the music of Handel ‘Unto Us a Child Is Born’
They were not on their own, everyone around them had tears of utter exhilaration. The love of his life gripped his arm so tightly as each climax tried to seemingly split the very core of her being. For two hours they sat on the edge of that pew getting more and more exhausted with the majesty of it all, and then in silence walking out into the cold winter night, snow falling hard to a peace on earth that to this day is a memory of lasting joy for him.
Turning the corner at the Odeon Cinema into King Street the wind and ice struck them both like a thousand needles, and looking up at the snow still falling and a biting wind now in their faces, they ran across the road to shelter for a while and catch their breathe in Olby’s entrance and listened to a ‘sing song’ that was going on in the ‘York Arms’ a few doors up the road. Little fairy lights adorned each shop window with wreaths of holly hanging from each door. The Salvation Army band could be heard playing somewhere in the background probably in the town square as they once again set off on their way towards The Plains of Waterloo. They stopped again and sheltered in Firrels the jewellers and opticians, and he remembered the scent from the florist on the corner even though the door was closed and pavement empty of all the flowers that usually covered that corner of King Street. Crossing back over the road, braving the blizzard they eventually turned the corner huddled up close to each other nearly colliding with a small crowd who were all bunched up around a brazier trying to keep warm, they made room for them so they stayed a while, listening once again to the sound of Christmas as they sang carols by the fire in their woolly hats and scarves. Buying a bag of hot chestnuts from the vendor for a few pence they both wrapped their hands round the brown paper bag to warm them, eventually pulling themselves away from the warmth of the fire to carry on with their journey home. The delicious contents of the bag added to their joy as they climbed that steep hill to its summit, peeling the last one, they both giggled and shared it, making each bite smaller than the last to prolong the disappointment they had all gone. He remembered wrapping one end of his red and navy school scarf around her neck to protect her from the cold wind as they braced themselves for the last part of their journey and what they knew would be the worst of the weather, turning into Wellington Crescent on the cliff top. The welcoming sight of the porch light shining on the virgin snow, now quite deep outside her home loomed up in front of them. Opening the door for her, the warm air engulfed them; wrapping a blanket of comfort around two tiny figures in the porch-way. They had once again enjoyed an evening of music so dear to each of them; filling their very souls with a sound that could not, nor ever, leave them. This, along with a lot more of its kind is how he remembered Christmas.
Each window crystallised with ice making a perfect star in the centre, tiny white frosted fingers reaching the extremities of each pane creating a kaleidoscope of the scene outside. One corner of each pane oddly collecting the snow as it fell silently from the pitch-black sky, millions upon millions of small flakes falling in slow motion to join the carpet of the pure white blanket that covered everything in sight, such beauty in the nature of it, so hard to describe or replicate. The light from the porch was shining like a thousand candles illuminating a small area; behind it pitch black nothingness, no sound, and no movement until a small block fell from the roof with the very faintest thud sending myriads of small flakes in all directions only to settle again, disappearing into the blanket of soft white virgin snow.Standing in the window watching, both of them lost in the wonder of nature being created before their very eyes, so beautiful, everything was so peaceful, the evening they had shared had been so perfect, the little lights on the Christmas tree by their side added to the reflections in the window and each crystal of ice reflected a rainbow of colours adding to the magic of the scene.
Her mum lit the candles on the sideboard and piano and turned off the main light, the fire crackled in the grate giving everything in the room a warm glow making their cheeks and hands come back to life giving both of them, standing close together the memory of the music still fresh in their minds, a feeling of the love of life they both shared.
Remembering it now, so vividly, he can still smell that room of real pine needles, of scented candle wax, and the Yew logs burning in the fireplace. That ever-present perfume she used to put on, drifting up towards him as they stood there, her little hand, so gentle, finding his. When she had taken her coat off he remembers the lace from her blouse falling over her shoulders and how he rearranged it, those big blue eyes looking up at him as he smoothed that very feminine lace around her shoulders, so fine and delicate.
There were no presents, no paper chains, just he remembers, a little nativity scene on the table by the Christmas tree. Sitting in front of the fire on the floor cross-legged cracking nuts and drinking a punch her mum made up for them, as it went down making him warm inside, there was no need for expensive presents, no need for garish decorations to fill that big room, the warmth of the fire and snug feeling of Christmas with the snow falling outside was enough for him to remember every detail sixty years on.
He finally had to tog up again to make his way home, it was Christmas eve, he wanted to be with his little brother and sisters and the drifting snow outside wasn’t at all a deterrent to make that journey. Remembering that small delicate lovely figure of a girl standing in the window as he turned to wave goodbye, snow falling very heavily around him with a good two to three mile walk ahead of him, the smile on her face as she raised her arm was enough to keep him warm inside for the whole journey home. No one passed him that night, the soft snow crunching under his feet with every step, it was not an effort, in fact he found it raised his spirits even further with the memory of the music still ringing in his ears.
An evening to remember, a Christmas to remember, a joy to his heart that is still there sixty years on as he sometimes listens to the music of Handel with a tear or two. Although it has been broken in a couple of places over the years, the fitness of his youth has kept that ticker of his going for him to cherish those early days and stood him in good stead with just a few hiccups.He sat there in the armchair with his young granddaughter on his lap who was by now fast asleep, remembering;
Stretched out on his bed with his brother, eating the large orange that they always found in their pillowcase at the bottom of the beds, the chocolate father Christmas that was a big attraction before Christmas breakfast of ‘ham off the bone’ (not the plastic stuff you buy in the supermarkets these days), and there were large runny eggs with big yellow yokes that they dipped home made bread soldiers in . . . . and butter! ! Such a treat, so much joy in remembering a time of year with the small things that made it so special, sad really, that the youngsters of today would take it all as a matter of course.
His family had been so rich in the love of life they shared with each other, his brother and sisters meant so much to him and the fun they shared at that time has lasted their whole life.
He looked up at the wall in his daughter’s lounge and studied the television covering well over half of one side in front of him and remembered the twelve-inch screen they had sat and watched the Coronation on all those years ago, how marvellous they all thought at the time. But at Christmas, there was each other, and their entertainment was gathering round the piano singing carols, or sitting in a huddle round a big fire in the grate eating fruit and cracking nuts and playing games.
He lifted with ease the young life off his lap; her little head snuggled into his neck in a sleepy stupor and closed her eyes again. Her little hand gripped hold of his shirt collar pulling herself closer into him, and her other arm hung onto the blanket that he had wrapped around her before, keeping her warm. Studying her face as he walked across the room, wondering if she would remember her Christmas’s with so much enjoyment, climbing the stairs with her in his arms, a sadness all of a sudden came over him, a cloud of despair seemed to tarnish the taste of the brandy he had just finished drinking, if only he could show her what they had, just to wrap in a small parcel that love they felt, and put it with her other parcels awaiting her under the tree. It was a strange feeling of helplessness of what she was missing, and that material world that was in store for her, and what he hoped would be a long life in front of her.
Gently laying her in bed and tucking her up for the night, his veined old hand stroked the hair out of her eyes, standing there for a while looking down at the perfection lying so peacefully in front of him, don’t we all wonder at the beauty of life we create, watching each day our children and grandchildren grow, marvelling at this miracle of the life we bring into being. He turned to see his daughter standing in the doorway; a little tear fell off her chin that had run down her cheek as she held out her arms to me;
“I know Pop’, I know, but she is happy I’m sure, and she loves your little stories, like we all did, such a long time ago now. Come and have another drink and don’t be sad, she is such a happy little soul, it’s Christmas!”
Going back down the stairs, she linked his arm and turned to face him;
“Who was the little sweet-heart you just mentioned, was it mum . . . . .?”
He shook his head, once again remembering all they had given each other;
“Someone I have beautiful memories of,” he softly whispered, a distant calm look of peace crossed his face, in that brief moment he was young again, turning towards his daughter with a little smile;
“Sadly lost over time my dear, but never ever, ever forgotten.”